It's safe to say that no other theater in the world is presenting "The London Prodigal" this week but the Shakespeare Society of America. Indeed, this play can't have been performed very often since it was first seen at the Globe Theatre in the early 1600s. It probably wasn't written by Shakespeare--although a quarto was published with his name on the title page in 1605--and there isn't a bit of magic or beauty in it.
Nor is it acted with particular skill at the Shakespeare Society. Still, "The London Prodigal" has its interest, at least for purposes of argumentation. Assuming it was a hit (and if not, why publish it?), it's living proof that Shakespeare wasn't writing for a great audience, but for an entirely average audience, willing to settle for a clever bit of plot and a run-through of characters they'd seen before. Somehow Shakespeare was able to give this audience what it wanted, and yet show it his vision of humanity.
Vision is not a word that applies to "The London Prodigal." It makes "The Merry Wives of Windsor" look deep. "Prodigal" is a city comedy, concerning a young wastrel (David Ellenstein at the Shakespeare Society) who is saved from his evil ways by the love of an impossibly loyal wife (Susan Falcon).
The poor girl didn't even want to marry him. It was her Papa's doing (Chuck Kovacic). But once she has given her word, she knows her place: at her husband's feet. Even when he pleasantly tells her to get out of his life and become a prostitute.
Excellent woman! And sure enough, at the last possible moment, his heart melts at her example, and he turns into the virtuous man that his father (Dale Reynolds) always knew would emerge, once the young puppy had sown his wild oats. There is love aplenty at the finale and, to solidify it, a generous distribution of cash.
This being Elizabethan comedy, the plot includes people in disguise, most implausibly when the father puts on an eye patch and hires on as his son's servant. For comic relief, we have the wife's two sisters, one with the giggles (Gillian Bagwell) and one with spectacles (Stacey Renee). Their swains include a country bumpkin (Matt Kirkwood) and two city bachelors (Jerry Neill, Dell Adcock).
Hey-ho. The Royal Shakespeare Company could probably get some fun out of "The London Prodigal," but it has long been clear that the Shakespeare Society of America is not the Royal Shakespeare Company. Director Todd Mandel gives us a clear but fairly tepid account of the play, particularly in the scenes involving the young rake, who should be outrageous but somehow forgivable. Actor Ellenstein makes him a self-satisfied simp.
Falcon as his wife is more plausible in disguise than as her true self, but that's partly the script. The surrounding cast rises and falls according to individual talent, with the older actors coming out best: Kovacic as the father-in-law is very funny when he holds out as long as he can against that happy ending.
Libby Jacobs' costumes are credible, given the budget, and Chez Cherry throws in some charming hobby horses to stand for real ones. Shakespeare hobbyists are probably the major market for "The London Prodigal." Other apocrypha on the Shakespeare Society's schedule this year: "Sir John Oldcastle" (Nov. 19) and "The Yorkshire Tragedy" (March 26).
'THE LONDON PRODIGAL' A play attributed to Shakespeare, at the Shakespeare Society of America. Producers R. Thad Taylor and Jay Uhley. Director Todd Mandel. Assistant director Noelle Harling. Stage manager Vicki Berthelot. Acting coach/consultant Sherry Myers. Light design Kent Inasy. Lighting assistant Louis Castaldo. Set/horses Chez Cherry. Costumes Libby Jacobs. Costume assistant Debra Dresser. Movement Christopher Swaja. Composer Ren Hinks. Properties Bette Finchem. With Dell Adcock, Gillian Bagwell, David Ellenstein, Susan Falcon, Tom Hamil, Timothy Juliano, Mat Kirkwood, Chuck Kovacic, Jerry Neill, Stacey Renee, Dale Reynolds, Stuart Rogers, Craig Stout. Plays Thursdays-Sundays at 8 p.m., through Oct. 5. Tickets $8.50-$12.50. 1107 N. Kings Road. (213) 654-5623.