Corrections or additions?
This review by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on
July 19, 2000. All rights reserved.
Off-Broadway: `The Countess’
Unheralded and unceremoniously presented when it first
opened, "The Countess" by Gregory Murphy, whose first play
this is, has not only become the most talked about drama in New York,
but also the longest running. Critics have followed its one-year
from Off-Off Broadway to Off-Broadway (now in its third theater) with
steadily increasing accolades. Certainly the public has taken a fancy
to the Victorian setting and the intimate and suspenseful story about
John Ruskin, the high-minded British critic of art and society and
champion of the artists who formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood,
his wife Effie (the countess of the title), and John Everett Millais,
Ruskin’s painter protege and exponent of the then-controversial
Nothing, however, could have been more controversial and scandalous
than the affair that shocked London society in 1853, but began in
a small cottage in the Scottish Highlands. It is there that Ruskin
(James Riordan) has taken his wife (Jennifer Woodward) and Millais
(Jy Murphy) for a four-month holiday. Millais, who is grateful to
Ruskin for his defense of his artistic convictions, has agreed to
stay with them and paint Ruskin’s portrait. Revealed as a neurotic,
sexually dysfunctional, verbally abusive husband ("I don’t like
the way you look, sound, or move"), the tyrant Ruskin has
conspired to arrange for his young, love-starved bride to be
by the romantic, younger (by 10 years) painter Millais.
Inevitably, Millais and Effie fall in love. But they also become pawns
in Ruskin’s plot to drive Effie mad (think "Gaslight") and
ill. It seems that Ruskin, was attracted to his cousin Effie when
she was 12 years old, but was so revolted by her looks ("You are
not what I think a woman should be") as a woman that he refused
to have any sexual relations with her. Riordan gives a chilling
of the diabolical Ruskin who became, ironically, the author of a
tract on Victorian womanhood and this famous dictum that begins,
to Nature in singleness of heart and walk with her laboriously and
trustingly, adding nothing, rejecting nothing, scorning nothing."
Murphy’s carefully crafted drama about lovers caught in a diabolical
trap set by the esteemed Ruskin is especially sensitive and observant
about proper Victorian etiquette and behavior, particularly in
This is given particular emphasis in the performances of Richard Seff
and Anita Keal, as Ruskin’s stuffy and snobby parents, and Tracy
as Lady Eastlake, Effie’s ally and confidante.
Articulate and passionate, the play is beautifully served by Ludovica
Villar-Hauser’s direction, which allows us to see how the conventions
of Victorian society and the constraints put upon sexual longing
this very strange, true-life affair. Woodward gives an extraordinarily
compelling performance as the attractive and frustrated wife who
from a repressed woman, hated and reviled, into a defiant and valiant
one, both loved and desired.
Equally fine is Murphy’s transformation from a respectful pupil into
a resourceful lover and future husband. However, beautifully dressed
up by designers Mark Symczak (settings) and Christopher Lione and
Elizabeth Muxi (costumes), it is the Freudian tremors that we see
below the surface of this Victorian melodrama that makes "The
Countess" an evening of terrific theater. HHH
— Simon Saltzman
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