A bunch of convicts sulk in a prison. They're filthy and ragged, and each has a different mental illness. Then, a heroic prisoner appears: This new culprit is charismatic and world-weary, and for two hours, we hear the culprit's story. Many years ago ...
Moll Flanders is a brand-new adaptation of the Daniel Defoe novel, produced by the New Olde Bank Theatre. But playwright Sean Michael O'Donnell uses an old gimmick: Our hero(ine) faces hanging, and when she recounts her life, the prisoners impersonate the people she's met and the tragedies she's witnessed.
Like Man of La Mancha, Marat/Sade, Warrior and The Island -- to name a few plays that use the same device -- O'Donnell's story-in-prison drama is bleak from the get-go. Moll Flanders begins life as an orphan, and works her way through five husbands and six children before turning to prostitution and thievery.
Moll's only desire is to become a "gentlewoman," but her every attempt is thwarted by arrest, incest, con games, bankruptcy and untimely death. There's even some abortion and lesbian love to spice things up. Meanwhile, Moll faces the gallows -- a fitting finale to a luckless life.
O'Donnell's adaptation is so dire that the two hours drag endlessly. The New Olde Bank Theatre is a second-story chamber with drop-ceilings and hardwood floors. It's not unlike a church basement, with the audience crammed against two walls, the performers acting between them.
O'Donnell, who also directed, does the best he can with nine actors and some track lighting. But how do you create 30 characters and stage 14 main scenes -- plus sub-scenes and montages -- in such a shoebox? Small-budget theater has great virtues, but Moll's personality is simply too big to fit into this bank, New, Olde or otherwise.
If Moll Flanders isn't successful, the board of the New Olde Bank Theatre should take heart: The company staged My Name Is Rachel Corrie, and the local premiere of Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking will be staged in November. These are intense, sophisticated one-woman shows, far more suitable to the Bank's modest quarters; Veronans should count themselves lucky to have such forward-thinking artists. And after all his toil, O'Donnell deserves to see his labor of love produced; perhaps his Moll Flanders will be reincarnated on larger stages. Until then, Moll can only beg the mercy of the court.
Moll Flanders continues through Sat., Sept. 19. New Olde Bank Theatre, 722 Allegheny River Blvd., Verona. 412-251-7904 or www.newobt.com.