Terry Teachout,  Theater Review 9/19/13

Don Juan in Hell

Phoenix Theatre Ensemble, Paradise Factory

64 E. 4th St. ($25), 212-352-3101,

closes Sept. 29 2013

[image]                                                                                                                                Gerry Goodstein
Craig Smith and Elise Stone

In 1949 Charles Laughton made a tidy bundle by presenting “Don Juan in Hell,” the 90-minute central sequence of George Bernard Shaw’s “Man and Superman,” as a dramatic reading performed on a bare stage by four big-name actors in evening dress (Mr. Laughton’s colleagues on that celebrated occasion were Charles Boyer, Cedric Hardwicke and Agnes Moorehead). Since then it’s become fairly common to see “Don Juan in Hell” performed in this frugal manner, but I’ve never seen it done separate from “Man and Superman” in a fully staged production. Hence the inherent interest of the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble’s modern-dress version, directed by Karen Case Cook, in which Shaw’s wordy but magnetically involving discussion of the meaning of life unfolds in a tiny theater on an abstract set designed by Tsubasa and Jennifer Stimple Kamei that looks like a piece of Asian installation art.

Accompanied by the eerie, perfectly timed electronic music of Ellen Mandel, Ms. Cook’s “Don Juan in Hell” comes across as a full-blooded drama, not a debate. The staging, in which Shaw’s characters are aware of and play directly to the audience, adds focus and emphasis to the proceedings, and the four actors, Jason O’Connell, Joseph J. Menino, Craig Smith and Elise Stone, are well matched and nicely varied. Mr. O’Connell, who has distinguished himself at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, most recently as Parolles in “All’s Well That Ends Well,” is altogether remarkable, giving us a vibrant Don Juan who is by turns amused and anguished by his plight.

This production deserves to run longer—much longer.

—Mr. Teachout, the Journal’s drama critic, is the author of “Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington,” out next month from Gotham Books. Write to him at