| Chicago Reader

The Custom of the Country 


Buffalo Theatre Ensemble

at the Theatre Building

My son is into mixing things. He'll pour salt, pepper, cinnamon, ketchup, a little vanilla, some garlic powder, and a dash of hot sauce into a glass of water. Then he stirs it up and tastes his concoction, hoping he has discovered a recipe for a delicious new drink. But his reaction is always the same--"Blaaah!" Still, he keeps trying, as if sooner or later he'll hit upon a mixture that works.

Nicholas Wright has taken a similar approach to his play, The Custom of the Country. He started with an early 17th-century play by Beaumont and Fletcher and mixed in some bloody Jacobean tragedy and some Shakespearean romance, full of magic and miracles. For good measure, he threw in liberal doses of farce, satire, and historical drama. He seems to have believed that such a daring mixture would yield something original and exciting, but the result can be summed up with my son's expressive reaction to his own experiments--"Blaaah!"

The play begins in the Zambezi valley of Africa in 1890, on the eve of a white missionary's wedding to a black tribal woman named Tendai. The chief wants to claim his traditional right--sleeping with the bride on her wedding night--and the missionary knows that refusing the demand could be fatal. After all, the chief has ordered that upon his death, one male from every family must be executed so people will be sufficiently grief stricken at his funeral.

So while the missionary is ostensibly explaining the wedding customs of the white man to the chief, he actually performs the ceremony--he's an ordained minister--marrying himself to the beautiful Tendai right under the chief's nose. Then the newlyweds flee.

Subsequent scenes take place in Johannesburg. During their escape from the chief, the missionary and his bride are separated and now each believes the other dead. Tendai is working as a servant to Daisy Bone, a madam who has expanded her house of ill repute, under the guidance of a Jewish scholar named Lazarus, to very lucrative proportions. The missionary is one of Daisy's visitors, but he never quite bumps into Tendai.

Meanwhile, Henrietta van Es, a widow, is about to sell the mineral rights to her gold-rich land to the greedy Dr. Jameson, but the deal is called off when her son, Willem, a favorite plaything of Daisy Bone, is shot and killed. But then the boy's killer ends up in bed with Henrietta, and, well . . . you get the idea.

A description of the play is deceptively lively. Director Peter Forster has managed to slow the action down to an exasperating crawl. The Custom of the Country is primarily farce, but it's played like tragedy: the characters linger over their predicaments and react with languor instead of manic surprise. Even the doors seem to slam in slow motion.

The direction can't completely obscure the talent of some cast members, however. Donna Freeburn, for example, cleverly swells Daisy Bone's emotions to comic proportions. David Engel deftly sidesteps the anti-Semitic innuendo written into the role of Lazarus by playing the character as a genuinely smart, decent man. And Liza Cruzat, a strikingly beautiful actress who has appeared in a half-dozen films, captures the innocence and devotion of Tendai.

The rest of the cast members in this Buffalo Theatre Ensemble production seem to have lacked guidance: their mostly flat, unfocused performances squander the play's comic potential. And the play does have some funny moments. Lazarus, for example, comes up with an idea for expanding Daisy's business--opening a branch for women--and hires Roger, the missionary's brother, to work as a prostitute. When Roger staggers in after a hard day's work, Lazarus tells him to lie down. "But it's my day off!" Roger wails.

The playwright has thrown together a variety of styles, but that in itself needn't be fatal. If the director had imposed a consistent tone, and accelerated the action so it would take less than two and a half hours to unfold, the play might have been coherent and fun to watch. Instead, in Forster's hands, The Custom of the Country remains too big a muddle for the audience to swallow.

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