Alan Cox and Emily Barber in CORNELIUS. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
BOTTOM LINE: The crises and dramas within this revived play from 1935 still ring true today.
Last August, Britain’s Finborough Theatre dusted off J.B. Priestly’s forgotten work Cornelius, which had not been performed in over 70 years. Their production was so well received that it was brought to 59E59 Theatre’s Brits Off Broadway Festival here in New York. Although the show is dated, many of the characters’ struggles ring true. The show’s exploration of the financial struggles faced in London post-crash and how they limit one’s hope and future possibilities seem similar to the struggles faced recently in America post-recession.
The play’s title character Cornelius (Alan Cox) is a partner in a crumbling aluminum import business called Briggs and Murrison -- Briggs is long since dead and Murrison is away on business -- and when he reappears it is apparent he has lost his mind putting the company’s future further into limbo. Cornelius is also a widower and several lines in the play hint at his painful loneliness. As Cornelius attempts to cope with the company’s debts he also has to push away the many peddlers that barge into his office pushing their wares.
Here the humor starts, with Cornelius showing off his unusual and sardonic wit. The humor ceases however when one of the peddlers is in such dire straits that he collapses from starvation. Cornelius asks him if there isn’t perhaps a better strategy for him to make a living. When the man assures him there is not Cornelius becomes lost in contemplation. He turns to his clerk Biddle (Col Farrell) and says, “If you’re willing to work hard, willing to take risks, ready to be scorched or frozen, drowned or sent half mad with thirst, there must be openings for you somewhere in the world. They can’t have closed everything up, so we’re all like bees in a glass case.”
Cornelius’s world is brightened by the arrival of Judy (Emily Barber) who has come to fill in for her sister, the office typist. Cornelius’s humor becomes more light-hearted and playful upon her arrival. What unfolds in the rest of the play is the financial collapse of the business and Cornelius’s use of humor to keep things optimistic. It is not until the end however that we learn of Cornelius’s true emotional state and the true significance of those who work within the office.
Alan Cox gives a strong performance as Cornelius, showing a talent for both comedy as well as drama, showing convincing vulnerability when Cornelius finally puts away his mask of humor. Cox's ability to dominate every scene is partly what makes this show enjoyable. Priestly’s script gives most of its focus to the business side of the office, but is endearing and believable when it explores the personalities and dramas of the characters. In the end, Cornelius is about going forward even when the life you once knew is gone.
(Cornelius plays at 59E59 Theater, 59 East 59th Street through June 30, 2013. Performances are Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7PM; Fridays at 8PM; Saturdays at 2PM and 8PM; and Sundays at 3PM and 7PM. Tickets are $70 and are available at 59e59.org or by calling 212-279-4200. For more information, visit britsoffbroadway.com.)