Penny Penniworth

Off-Broadway, Play, Comedy

Location: TADA! Theatre

Christopher Borg, Jamie Heinlein, Jason O'Connell and Ellen Reilly in Penny Penniworth.

BOTTOM LINE:  A fun-filled evening of Dickensian hijinx with great performances.

Penny Penniworth, written by Chris Weikel and produced by Emerging Artists Theatre (EAT), puts the meaning back in the theater review cliché "A delightful romp!" The production truly epitomizes the term: it is energetic, silly, funny, surprising, whimsical, and a fantastic, virtuosic display of actorly transformational ability. It does not have any pretensions of being serious, meaningful or important- at least not in terms of subject matter. The importance of the piece is as a reminder of the pleasures of live theatrical performance, particularly of watching talented actors twist, turn and tweak themselves into character after character. In this production four actors play at least 10 characters of radically different age, physicality and gender, sometimes at the same time with the aid of only their own finely-tuned instruments and a simple costuming device that alters a woman's skirt into a man's cloak and vice versa.

The play, receiving its first off-Broadway production (it has been produced off-off-Broadway several times since it was first premiered by EAT in 2002), is a fast-paced and loving satire of Dickensian literary conventions. It cleverly plays with the vocabulary, character types and plot conventions of the great English writer, leaving out only the investment in time required to experience his masterworks in written form (1000 pages anyone?). This play crams a whole novel's worth of plot twists (some surprising, others predictable) into 90 minutes. In contrast, the Royal Shakespeare production of Nicholas Nickleby clocked in at eight hours long. Although Penny Penniworth will certainly appeal to Dickens-lovers, Anglophiles and Victorianists, one does not have to love the genre to love the play. If you enjoy excellent physical comedy and clear and concise staging, finessed by director Mark Finley, you will certainly enjoy this show.

Directed and performed by long-term members of EAT, which has been serving up theater and supporting emerging playwrights for over 15 years, the show is a testament to the professionalism of small New York theater companies. However, though EAT and other groups continuously mount worthwhile theater, getting audiences is tough. Sadly, there were only about 15 people in a house that seats at 110 on the night that I attended the show. Before the show, artistic director Paul Adams gave a heartfelt curtain speech acknowledging the hard times for non-profit theater companies and asking audience members to tell five friends about the play (if we enjoyed it). New York residents and theater aficionados know that the there is great theater taking place all over the city. Unfortunately, we get complacent, and along with the average out-of-towner, we stick to Broadway and its closely affiliated and heavily funded Off-Broadway cousins like the Public, Second Stage, etc. Certainly venturing off the grid can be a hit or miss proposition, but there is also potentially a lot of fun to be had in doing so, in addition to the satisfaction of discovering a hidden gem, such as Penny Penniworth.

(Penny Penniworth plays at the TADA! Theatre, 15 West 28th Street, 2nd Floor, through November 1. Performances are Wednesday through Saturday at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm, and Mondays at 7pm. The show runs under 90 minutes with no intermission. There is no late seating. Tickets are $35 with a limited number of $20 student rush tickets available 30 minutes before curtain. For tickets and show information visit or call 800-838-3006.)