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BWW Reviews: A MOST DANGEROUS WOMAN Finds Human Drama in Complex Literature

George Eliot is one the monumentally ambitious 19th-century novelists that quite a few 21st-century readers know in passing, though not much beyond that. You might have sampled Adam Bede, The Mill on the Floss, or Silas Marner back in English 101, or you might have plowed through Middlemarch in the course of an elective, a grad seminar, or a long and otherwise boring summer. Normally, that's about it. Yet thanks to a happy coincidence, Eliot (born Mary Ann Evans) and her intricate novels may finally get their due. Just this month, The New Yorker ran an appreciative feature essay on Eliot: her reputation, her personality, and her "magnificently ugly, deliciously hideous" appearance (Henry James's words, not mine). A few days later, Cathy Tempelsman's drama A Most Dangerous Woman opened at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, offering audiences a two-and-a-half hour survey of Eliot's life and works.

How do you fit the story of an author so erudite, so complex, and so surprisingly humane into two and a half hours? For Tempelsman, the trick is to focus on a few episodes from Eliot's creative life and a few of Eliot's most important relationships, particularly her unconventional yet fulfilling marriage to a fellow author, George Henry Lewes. While walking us through ups and downs of the Lewes-Eliot liaison, this production arrives at some solid talking points on individualism, feminism, and other perennial topics. These points (along with impassioned line readings from Silas Marner and all the rest) make A Most Dangerous Woman a fine primer on Eliot and her books. It's the spontaneous, good-humored relationship between Eliot (Aedin Moloney, playing the authoress as self-deprecating yet razor-sharp) and Lewes (Ames Adamson, extra portions of joviality and a small, well-measured dose of poignancy) that makes this drama so pleasingly bittersweet. Intellectual romances are seldom this fun or meaningful on stage-or in real life, for that matter.

There's another reason why A Most Dangerous Woman is an unexpected treat. In taking a genius's life as her topic, Tempelsman is working in a most dangerous genre. Groundbreaking literature and groundbreaking authors have too often provided material for groundbreakingly stupid dramas, from Tom Stoppard's massive, mawkish, and grotesquely uninteresting Coast of Utopia trilogy to those ghastly pet projects James Franco comes up with. But A Most Dangerous Woman is more sprightly and irreverent, closer in spirit to a biographical experiment like Peter Shaffer's Amadeus. Instead of plodding along, Tempelsman's play freely fluctuates between humor and near-heartbreak. Eliot-whose own works are brilliant patchworks of dark, light, and infinite shades of gray-would approve.

And that's not the only time Tempelsman delivers a good, unobtrusive response to Eliot's genius. Like Eliot's supporting characters, the secondaries here are balanced, believable individuals: from Eliot's distant, aggrieved older brother (Rob Krakovski) to Eliot's cordial, commercially-minded editor (John Little) to one outspoken, artistic female friend (Deanne Lorette). Eliot and Lewes are the main attractions, of course, yet these other characters accentuate the challenges Eliot faced-as a brutally honest author, as one half of an unsanctioned marriage, and simply as a woman in the straitlaced 19th century.

Serious conflicts, yet director Richard Maltby, Jr. and his cast are also comfortable with broad comedy: bureaucratic jumbles, men in drag, and the occasional long, strange, madly emotional oration on Moloney's part. Fortunately for all this action, Nicholas Dorr's elegant set design consists mostly of rich solid-color backgrounds and lots of room to maneuver. The stage is never clogged with props or furniture, but the few pieces that are brought into play-carved writing desks, cushioned opera chairs, a case of biological specimens-quickly and quietly establish a cozy Victorian atmosphere.

Although A Most Dangerous Woman isn't clogged with scholarly interpretation either, the play does suggest new ways of understanding Eliot's work-much as an effective piece of scholarship should. Tempelsman's dialogue mentions Dickens, Thackeray, Jane Austen, and plenty of other English novelists who are commonly ranked alongside Eliot. But this production also delivers scenes of turmoil and panic-such as Eliot's curtain-closing outburst at the end of Act I-and line readings of harrowing and disorienting Eliot passages. Eliot doesn't merely come off as market competition for Dickens and Gaskell; she also comes off as a peer to the anguished giants of Russian literature, explosive writers like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov. This is a less common way of reading Eliot, but the truth is that Tempelsman has read Eliot closely enough to see her bleaker side-and that the rest of us, perhaps, should start reading closer.

Sometimes, Tempelsman can be too faithful a reader. The flaws in A Most Dangerous Woman are more often than not the kind of flaws that occur in Eliot's own writing. For instance, certain crucial scenes-including the sequence where Eliot, at the end of it all, wins public acclaim-have a slapdash quality. So do crucial scenes in Adam Bede and Middlemarch. Eliot, though, was never interested in vaunted standards of perfection, and even exhorts us to appreciate and understand "more or less ugly, stupid, inconsistent people" in the pages of Adam Bede. A Most Dangerous Woman continues this finely humanistic mission, earnestly helping us to understand Eliot herself, inconsistencies and all.

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From This Author Patrick Kennedy