Queen of Pain

Lie back and think of England. That's the advice Victorian-era mothers used to whisper to just-married daughters for coping with their wifely duties in the bedroom. It's also a good tip for anyone burdened with a ticket to The Countess, the new production at Fort Worth's Circle Theatre. This turgid drama doesn't so much entertain or inform its audience as test its powers of endurance. By Act 2, lying back and thinking of England seems an appropriate way to escape watching one more minute of this interminable, abominable play.

First-time playwright Gregory Murphy has taken what in real life was the juicy saga of a romantic triangle involving 19th-century British art critic and philosopher John Ruskin, his beautiful wife, Effie, and the artist, Everett Millais, who came between them, and he's sucked every drop of excitement and sexual energy out of it. What could have been an erotic collision of colorful personalities has been reduced by Murphy to a neurotic collection of colorless factoids straitlaced into boots and bonnets.

The play starts slowly and grinds slowly onward. Four scenes into Act 1, it remains unclear who the main characters are and what their relationship is to each other. On Clare DeVries' harshly lit set--it's supposed to be a manor in the Scottish highlands but looks like a little house on the prairie--events play out at the pace of glacial melting. Plot points are foggy. People pop in and out of the set's one rickety door illogically and awkwardly, for no other reason than to declaim more gummy, expository bits of dialogue (when the actors can remember the words without fumfering over them, which they frequently do).

Sign of a bad period play: overuse of ye olde expressions like "it's vexing to me" and "indeed."

The Countess is indeed a grim and vexing exercise in Victorian repression. How puzzling, then, that even amid the unrelenting drear the actors do a lot of that fake stage-laughing at lines no one, in any era, Victorian or otherwise, could find funny.

How dull is this play? The one chuckle (and it's a small one) in two hours of The Countess (was it only two?) has to do with a bit of stage business performed by a butler, who, during numerous lengthy scene changes, never forgets to readjust a sofa pillow just so. That the gesture gets a laugh at all shows how desperate the audience is for something, anything to react to in this marathon of yawns.

Director Susan Sargeant has made some spectacularly boring casting choices for The Countess. As John Ruskin, Stan Graner, wearing silly glued-on mutton chops, appears to have transferred directly from a church basement production of The Crucible. As Millais, Jeffrey Schmidt has leading-man looks but about as much sexual oomph as an O-Cedar mop. His bland, blank expression never changes, even when he's professing his forbidden lust for his best friend's wife. (Come to think of it, Schmidt looks a bit like Harry Hamlin, who's made a decent film and TV career out of bland, blank handsomeness, so maybe it's a studied choice.)

In the title role, Heather Child fails to reach any plausible levels of pain or passion in her portrayal of an emotionally abused wife stuck in a marriage that's as cold as a kipper. And bedeviled with thick diction problems, Child is extremely hard to understand. "Like all artith and writerth, he'th a dethpot," she says of her huthband, er, husband, John, at one point.

It's too bad that this production is such a bust, because buried in the pretentious mishmash of Murphy's script are the makings of a fine Victorian bodice-ripper. Ruskin was a major arts figure in Victorian England, a favorite of the queen herself. Ruskin's wife, Effie Gray, nicknamed "The Countess," was a bright, pretty woman with a quick wit and enough sense to realize that her husband was a controlling nitwit. Her every move and utterance were chronicled by Ruskin in a little notebook, which he'd whip out and read from like a court clerk whenever he wanted to belittle his wife.

To test Effie's loyalty, Ruskin often would leave her in the company of attractive, single men. The central event in The Countess recounts a summer trip to Scotland, where the couple has a house guest, the artist Millais. With Ruskin caught up writing his lectures on art and beauty, Effie and Millais begin to engage in Victorian foreplay, sketching each other and shooting longing looks across the cold drawing room.

Playwright Murphy has penned a flat, passionless romantic revelation scene between Millais and Effie toward the end of Act 1. "Would you speak my name, my Christian name, once before we leave?" Millais asks, standing so far from his beloved he nearly has to shout his request. "Everett...Everett," she answers, with all the vocal pizzazz of Ben Stein with a head cold.

Everett shmeverett. Let's get this party started.

But no, old Vic's reign, when even the legs of the "pianoforte" were draped for modesty, wasn't much of a party for women like Effie. So nobody's jumping any bones in this bone yard.

Back in London, Effie does rebel against her frigid husband, who, it turns out, has never bothered to consummate their union. Threatened with annulment, he is forced to admit to his puritanical parents that he isn't capable of effing Effie. And anyway, he hasn't found her attractive since she was, oh, about 11 years old. The old folks' reaction is to declare Effie mentally unstable and "in need of a good hard caning."

Torture is a theme in The Countess, it turns out. Ruskin tortures his wife by denying her both respect and a hearty shag in the marital bed. Gregory Murphy tests the pain levels of theatergoers by typing two hours' worth of dreadful dialogue. The director and actors cane the patience of the ticket buyers by making Murphy's characters even more stiff and unlikable and dragging it all out like the drip-drip-drip of water torture.

And let us spare no conspirators to this failure. The costumes by Barbara Cox are garish and haphazardly constructed (the program says they were copied from period portraits, but many of them just look like bedspreads with sleeves). John Leach's lighting design belongs in a bowling alley, not a tiny theater. The opening voice-overs in both acts sound as though they were recorded at the bottom of a grave.

It's an effing disaster, start to finish, and very vexing indeed.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner