IN MANY WAYS, Herman Melville's two major works, Moby Dick and Bartleby the Scrivener, couldn't be more dissimilar. One is a vast, complex novel about a man possessed by a demonic energy to seek out his own destruction, while the other is a short story about a man entirely lacking in energy who slides towards his demise with scarcely a sigh. While it's the white whale that gets all the epic treatments, the quiet dilemma of Melville's clerk seems more of the modern world, as shown in this superior adaptation by the trio of Paul Budraitis, Tricia Sexton, and James Cowan.
Annex Theater till October 30
An unnamed Solicitor (Gavin Cummins) runs what is clearly a successful but fair-minded business with his two content, if decidedly eccentric, clerks: Turkey (Yusef Lambert) and Nippers (Matt Ford). He's been rewarded for his hard work with more contracts, and to keep up with his success he decides to hire a new clerk. The first person through the door isn't quite what he was looking for; the shabby and uncommunicative Bartleby (James Cowan) enters the office seemingly by accident, like a piece of windblown paper. At first, despite his unassuming demeanor, he works out well; his work is neat, he's industrious, and despite his habitual silence he fits in well enough. Until, that is, he responds to a request to help look over some documents with "I prefer not to."
Soon Bartleby is "preferring not to" do all sorts of things, from simple tasks to allowing his own employer into the building early. He's insufferable, but also unknowable, and the Solicitor suffers him not only from compassion but because of a searing curiosity to understand him.
The writers have described this play as "a quiet revolution," which makes it seem an unlikely choice for Annex, whose house style is famed for outrageous costumes, pop-culture references, and other cheap and cheerful carnival tricks. But this subtle and meticulous show almost entirely escapes such techniques and manages to get straight to the heart of the liberal dilemma of charity: How are we to help those who will not help themselves? Both Cowan as the soft-spoken clerk and Cummins as his painfully compassionate employer give wonderfully understated and detailed performances, and the show is itself a quiet revolution—of insight, perception, and of limits of enlightened thought to deal with human nature. Sensitively accented by Robert Walker's ingenious percussion, Bartleby is not only faithful to its source, but in creating a wonderful evening of ambiguous theater, transcends the need to explain it.