Magic Time! ‘Rameau’s Nephew’ at Spooky Action Theater

There comes a scene in Rameau’s Nephew at Spooky Action Theater when Robert Bowen Smith playing He (the titular character) coughs an aria. Literally. Just like an opera singer except without music or lyrics. He goes on and on wordlessly, hackingly, raspingly, inflecting cough after ridiculous cough with a sincere and silly musicality that had me howling with laughter.

The stunt stopped the show. Remarkably it apparently left Smith’s vocal cords unscathed, for he was not the least bit hoarse after. And in retrospect this passage was the only time in the play when his character uttered something morally neutral. Because pretty much all the rest of the time, he was a shameless reprobate who reveled in his self-aggrandizing amorality the way a pig  delights in mud. (I’m not going to say how, because so much of the fun of the show is finding out how ingeniously this penniless fellow survives by being a conniving cad.)

Ian LeValley and Robert Bowen Smith. Photo by Tony Hitchock.
Ian LeValley and Robert Bowen Smith. Photo by Tony Hitchcock.

Smith’s antic tour-de-force performance—a reason to rush to see this show—somehow turns the character’s appallingly selfish ethos into endlessly entertaining sketch comedy. I cannot recall a more enjoyable character on stage whose value system is so utterly bereft of a care for anyone but himself.

Rameau’s Nephew—directed deftly by Richard Henrich—is essentially a quick-witted comedy of morals, in which someone so profligate  must of course have someone proper to scandalize and shock. The straight man, accordingly, is a cerebral character the program calls I, a bourgeois fop played by Ian LeValley with punctilious panache.

The debate between them, all of it bristling with wit, is not at all one-sided. In fact the script by Shelly Barc and Andrei Belgrader adapted from Denis Diderot’s 18-century classic dialogue is surprisingly even-handed in its treatment of the two.

Robert Bowen Smith and Ian LeValley. Photo by Tony Hitchcock.
Robert Bowen Smith and Ian LeValley. Photo by Tony Hitchcock.

The character He, it turns out, does have one virtue, a talent for music. And in the end the character I finds himself marveling that the character He is so “attuned to music but deaf to morality.”

Ethics tends to be the engine of much of my favorite theater. When done well, the contest of morals in the conflicts between characters provides some of the art form’s most satisfying pleasures and unique provocations, a point in time and space where esthetics and ethics do a pas de deux that begins on a stage and continues in one’s mind. Such an event is now happening at Spooky Action in a  smart, scintillating, and side-splitting  production of Rameau’s Nephew.

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission. 


Rameau’s Nephew plays through November 13, 2016 at Spooky Action Theater – 1810 16th Street , NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them online.

Review: ‘Rameau’s Nephew’ at Spooky Action Theater by David Siegel.

Note: This play is intended for audiences age 16 and over.

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John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg is executive editor of DC Theater Arts. He writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg. Member, American Theatre Critics Association.


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