By Daniel Skora
Take the social, economical and philosophical ramblings of Karl Marx, a misdirected letter from Charles Dickens to his lawyer, and the yearnings of a soon-to-be young woman for a silk bonnet and you have the makings of “Capital”, the enjoyably amusing and often hilarious comedy currently being presented by the Detroit Repertory Theatre. Loosely based on an historical occurrence, this World Premiere by James Armstrong is set in London during the summer of 1858.
Having lived in Great Britain’s capital city for almost a decade, Karl Marx (Harry Wetzel) is busy writing what will become his monumental work, Das Kapital. Meanwhile, he earns a meager living writing articles for The New York Daily Tribune, Horace Greeley’s socially and politically conscious American newspaper. His daughter Jenny (Lulu Dahl), though concerned about the family’s impoverished financial situation, continually begs her father for a silk bonnet like all the other girls her age are wearing.
One day a seller of Michaelson’s Amazing Automatic Sealing Wax (Ben Will, playing the first of a handful of characters) appears at the Marx residence attempting to sell his wares. He carries with him a letter written by Charles Dickens to his lawyer that has mistakenly come into his possession. The letter is of a personal nature, expressing the disdain Dickens has for his wife while communicating his affection for the actress Nelly Ternan. What to do with the letter becomes a subject of intense discussion between Marx and his daughter. On philosophical grounds, Marx believes the missive should be returned to its sender. Jenny, who seems to have a modern appreciation for the public’s interest in celebrity gossip, wants the letter sent to The Tribune where it will undoubtedly sell many newspapers and earn her father a healthy commission which will allow her to buy that silk bonnet.
What follows is a robust tug-of-war for the letter between all parties concerned. Marx and Jenny are joined by Arthur Smith, Dickens’ lawyer (Will again), who lays claim to the letter, The aforementioned Nelly Ternan (Sara Catheryn Wolf) shows up, wanting to keep any mention of her affair private. A constable who hauls everyone down to the police station after the brouhaha moves to the park decides to hold it for evidence. The landlord who’s owed rent by Marx also wants to get his hands on it.
“Capital” is an interesting assemblage of historical characters and historical place, time, and fact. Fortunately, playwright Armstrong has made the play’s intentions anything but serious.
The writings of Karl Marx may have been flush with political and social import when they were published over a century and a half ago, but when delivered by Wetzel, they sound more whimsical rather than intellectual. Any talk that deals with the bourgeois, the proletariat, or manifestos of any kind, quickly dissolves into the more important issue of are we going to have a silk hat or not. And while Marx’s broomcorn beard lends an austere dignity to his historical portraits and photographs, Wetzel’s tawdry imitation undercuts any efforts towards respectability.
Director Leah Smith has assembled a cast who know how to do physical comedy. Dahl is uniformly exceptional. Wolf turns a hoop skirt into a running gag. Will is inherently funny. The divided set, with the Marx’s simple living quarters on one side of the stage and the city park on the other, skirts the border between realism and playfulness. Design is by Harry Wetzel.
Lighting design is by Thomas Schraeder, sound by Burr Huntington. The engaging period costumes are by designer Mary Cunningham, while Kelly Pino takes care of stage managing duties.
“Capital” runs through May 14th. Tickets are available for several subscription packages that can be purchased at any time and are good for a year from date of purchase. Visit their site at www.DetroitRepTheatre.com for more information or email them at DetRepTh@aol.com. The Detroit Repertory Theatre is located at 13103 Woodrow Wilson in Detroit.