MetroStage’s ‘The Thousandth Night’ deftly evades play’s invitation to mawkishness


Marcus Kyd as Guy de Bonheur in The Thousandth Night by Carol Wolf. (Chris Banks)

Acting isn’t subversive, right? That’s the case a nervous Parisian performer makes to a roomful of 1943 French gendarmes in Carol Wolf’s “The Thousandth Night,” a solo drama that Alexandria’s Metro­Stage is reviving from its attic of past shows.

“These plays are nothing,” insists Guy de Bonheur, the actor who stands in mortal fear of being put on the next train bound for a German concentration camp. (The setting, ominously rendered by James Kronzer, is a railway station.) “Entertainments for a cold night — that is all.”

You don’t expect a playwright to believe that, of course, and Wolf’s play adds up to a string of puckish protests. Guy’s perilous parables are often lifted from “The Arabian Nights”: Interrogation, intimidation and execution come up a lot.

The setup is that we, the audience, are the gendarmes deciding Guy’s fate. You could forgive a poor thespian for acting to the hilt as he tries to charm his jury, flashing jazz hands and a clownish grin to remind us it’s all for laughs.

Director John Vreeke casts a martini-dry eye on Wolf’s script, though, and Marcus Kyd, who plays Guy, goes through his character’s motions extremely warily. He’s careful not to overplay his hand; he skips through his routines, moving fast, glancing at us to make sure we’re keeping up with the rapid-fire impersonations.

He’s a doctor, then a baker; he’s Scheherazade and the bloodthirsty sultan, plus the colleagues that Guy shared stages with before the war splintered the ensemble. Accents are adopted and dropped as lightly as the hats and scarves Kyd plays with to indicate his characters.

So despite the script’s open invitation, Vreeke and Kyd’s show never devolves into a cheesy acting tour de force. Their healthy respect for the grim historical situation keeps the inevitable sentimentality (not to say self-congratulation) of Wolf’s play in check. The skillful, dignified and brisk 75-minute evening is nicely fleshed out by persuasive railway sound effects and the occasional sweep of a military searchlight.

“The Thousandth Night,” which MetroStage produced in 2001 with this same atmospheric set and a different actor, is the first part of a tag-team repertory. Another one-man show, “Underneath the Lintel” (featuring Paul Morella), alternates at MetroStage starting April 17.

The Thousandth Night

By Carol Wolf. Directed by John Vreeke. Costume design, Ivania Stack; lights, Alexander Keen; sound design, Robert Garner. About 75 minutes. Through May 18 at MetroStage, 1201 N. Royal St., Alexandria, Va. Tickets, $50. Call 703-548-9044 or visit www.metrostage.org.

First Post byline, 1992; covering theater for the Post since 1999. His book "American Playwriting and the Anti-Political Prejudice" will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2014.
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