Writer-director Daniel Rover Singer imagines a ninety-minute meeting between Charles Dickens and Lewis Carroll in the World Premiere of A Perfect Likeness, now playing at South Pasadena’s Fremont Centre Theatre, and despite bravura performances by Bruce Ladd and Daniel J. Roberts, I must confess to having found Singer’s play rather too talky for my tastes and not nearly as appealing and engaging as its unanimous rave reviews had led me to expect.

APL 12 Singer has conceived A Perfect Likeness as an “odd couple” comedy, and Dickens and Carroll are in fact about as unalike as two writers could possibly be.

Extroverted, cynical, and irreverent where Carroll is soft-spoken, optimistic, and introspective, the 54-year-old Dickens seems to relish the fame his best-sellers have afforded him by the year 1866. The 34-year-old Carroll, on the other hand, would much rather maintain his anonymity, hence his decision to write under a pseudonym rather than as Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, the name by which the mathematician was known at his “day job” as an Oxford University prof.

Playwright Singer’s “what-if” premise takes as its inspiration a couple bits of of Lewis Carroll trivia. First, it would appear that Dodgson once sought out Dickens’ mailing address. Second, the Alice In Wonderland scribe was an amateur camera bug during those early days of daguerreotype photography.

APL 5 A Perfect Likeness, therefore, imagines a ninety-minute sitting, told in real time, during which the two writers get to know each other (and get on each other’s nerves).

Since Dickens The Man seems almost immediately not to meet the younger writer’s expectations of Dickens The Novelist, one of A Perfect Likeness’s running gags is that for every “damn” or other coarse word that pops out of Dickens’ mouth, the profanity-loving older man must drop a coin in a cup soon filled with pence.

Much of A Perfect Likeness focuses on Dodgson’s rather obsessive interest in the daughter of an Oxford University colleague, a certain Miss Alice Liddell, to whom “Lewis Carroll” had first recounted Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland when the real-life Alice was a mere ten years of age.

Though Dodgson’s fascination with Alice Lidell—fourteen at the time A Perfect Likeness is set—may indeed have been a purely innocent delight in the notion of “childhood” at a time when children were to be seen and not heard, it’s hard not to see this obsession (and Dodgson’s expressed desire to marry Alice once she reaches adulthood) through 21st Century eyes, particularly since a bit of research reveals that a number of Carroll biographers have supposed Dodgson’s attachment to her to be either romantic and/or sexual.

Not all that much “happens” over the course of A Perfect Likeness’s ninety minutes, and the result of so much talk ended up more often lulling than captivating to this reviewer despite Roberts’ and Ladd’s tour-de-force work.

APL 10 Things do perk up a bit when Dickens’ illicit affair with actress Nelly Ternan is revealed, adultery that hardly sits well with the prim-and-proper Dodgson. And there’s a cute if improbable bit of swordplay between the two authors “fought” with umbrella and cane.

A Perfect Likeness is at its most interesting when amateur hypnotist Dickens “mesmerizes” the younger writer and we get to see deeper inside Lewis Carroll’s psyche than he would likely have wanted revealed.

Still, this reviewer couldn’t help feeling somewhat disappointed that A Perfect Likeness did not live up to its advance buzz, at least for this longtime Bruce Ladd/Daniel J. Roberts fan.

APL 7 Ladd’s larger-than-life persona makes the gregarious Charles Dickens a perfect fit for the Actors Co-op staple, and there’s not a more watchable actor in all of L.A. than Roberts, whose entertaining, touching performance as Dodgson is one of the Actors Co-op favorite’s best, peeling away Lewis Carroll’s onion skins in all their contradictory layers.

A Perfect Likeness looks fantastic, from its finely detailed set (designed by the playwright, Cal Smith, Armen Pirimasihi, Danny Garland, Wim Griffith, and Michael Hruska, disproving the “too many cooks” adage), to Will Hastings’ expert lighting, to Vicki Conrad’s period-perfect costumes, to Karen Ipock’s era-appropriate props (Tim Farmer’s “collodion camera” in particular), to William Rutheford’s accomplished sound design.

Perhaps best of all are Jonathan Christman’s projections, which give us those iconic original Alice In Wonderland illustrations along with actual Dodgson photographs, including those he took of the real-life Alice, whom he often posed in what for those conservative times must have seemed a state of relative undress.

Kimberly Weber is stage manager/board operator. A Perfect Likeness is produced by Singer. Kim Walker is associate producer.

Uniformly positive notices had this reviewer’s expectations for A Perfect Likeness raised particularly high. Though Ladd and Roberts did indeed reach those heights, A Perfect Likeness itself proved not nearly as perfect as I would have liked.

Fremont Centre Theatre, 1000 Fremont Ave., South Pasadena.


–Steven Stanley
November 23, 2013
Photos: Will Hastings

Tags: , , , ,

Comments are closed.