Review: ‘Capital’ plays Karl Marx for laughs

By John Monaghan, Special to the Detroit Free Press, April 13, 2017

Groucho, Harpo and Chico are still the funniest members of the Marx family, but Karl Marx gets plenty of laughs in Detroit Rep’s staging of “Capital.” The inspired new comedy from James Armstrong recasts the philosopher and economist not as the wild-bearded father of communism but as the real-life father of a demanding teen who gets caught up in a zany farce.

Rep vet Harry Wetzel does double duty in this production. He is responsible for the set design, which includes a writing desk stage right that is seemingly held together by pages of Karl’s manuscripts. He also plays the lead role, a man who happiest when he is scratching out new pages of what will eventually be “Das Kapital,” his epic three-volume tome.

The play is set in 1858, when Marx was a London correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune. He has a new column ready to mail, but he gets distracted by teenage daughter Jenny (Lulu Dahl), who insists that she must have a new silk bonnet to replace her old straw one. Not surprisingly, her father is not about to squander their money on such a symbol of conspicuous consumption.

To settle their difference of opinion, Jenny insists on calling in a random man (Ben Will, playing multiple roles) from the street. Before they can solicit his opinion, the stranger tries to sell them his new brand of sealing wax. He even has a contagious little jingle to go with the pitch.

By coincidence (one of several in the show), the man also has a letter written by Charles Dickens (yes, that Charles Dickens) in which the author reveals his plans to leave his wife and run off with actress Nelly Ternan (Sara Catheryn Wolf). Marx takes it upon himself to return the letter to its rightful owner, but runs into complications when Nelly arrives on the scene and insists that the letter be given to her.

Marx must now put his philosophy into practice and decide what to do. A letter’s purpose is to be delivered and read, so why not give it to his newspaper back in New York? Then again, shouldn’t a citizen (even one as well-known as Dickens) be able to keep details of his private life away from prying eyes?

By the end of the first act, characters tackle one another for control of the letter as it is snatched from hand to hand in the city park that Wetzel has fashioned stage left.( No one gets credit for the fight choreographer, though he or she probably should.) The battle over the letter continues well after intermission.

Playwright Armstrong has created a work that is at once old-fashioned and modern, cerebral and slapstick. Jenny might as well be talking about the latest iPhone rather than a new hat. The debate over what to print and the sanctity of the private versus the public continues to rage today courtesy of our tabloid culture.

“Capital” director Leah Smith remains in complete command of this tricky material and encourages her cast to head way over the top. This isn’t hard for Wolf, whose flighty stage star Nelly regularly bursts into soliloquy when she thinks she hears a cue. The skirt of her ankle-length hoop dress has a mind of its own, entering a scene long before she does.

With all of this kookiness spinning around him, you might assume that Marx is little more than a straight man. Not so. Wetzel has plenty to do in the verbal and the physical comedy departments, too, and he helps make the show feel much shorter than its nearly two-hour running time.

The biggest surprise in “Capital” comes from Dahl’s whip-smart Jenny, a girl prone to temper tantrums who can still hold her own in an argument with her famous father. Like the show itself, she can be silly, but she’s never stupid.


Silk Bonnet Requires “Capital” at Detroit Rep

By Daniel Skora of It’s All Theatre, Posted on March 28, 2017

Take the social, economical and philosophical ramblings of Karl Marx, a misdirected letter from Charles Dickens to his lawyer, and the yearnings of a soon-to-be young woman for a silk bonnet and you have the makings of “Capital”, the enjoyably amusing and often hilarious comedy currently being presented by the Detroit Repertory Theatre. Loosely based on an historical occurrence, this World Premiere by James Armstrong is set in London during the summer of 1858.

Having lived in Great Britain’s capital city for almost a decade, Karl Marx (Harry Wetzel) is busy writing what will become his monumental work, Das Kapital. Meanwhile, he earns a meager living writing articles for The New York Daily Tribune, Horace Greeley’s socially and politically conscious American newspaper. His daughter Jenny (Lulu Dahl), though concerned about the family’s impoverished financial situation, continually begs her father for a silk bonnet like all the other girls her age are wearing.

One day a seller of Michaelson’s Amazing Automatic Sealing Wax (Ben Will, playing the first of a handful of characters) appears at the Marx residence attempting to sell his wares. He carries with him a letter written by Charles Dickens to his lawyer that has mistakenly come into his possession. The letter is of a personal nature, expressing the disdain Dickens has for his wife while communicating his affection for the actress Nelly Ternan. What to do with the letter becomes a subject of intense discussion between Marx and his daughter. On philosophical grounds, Marx believes the missive should be returned to its sender. Jenny, who seems to have a modern appreciation for the public’s interest in celebrity gossip, wants the letter sent to The Tribune where it will undoubtedly sell many newspapers and earn her father a healthy commission which will allow her to buy that silk bonnet.

What follows is a robust tug-of-war for the letter between all parties concerned. Marx and Jenny are joined by Arthur Smith, Dickens’ lawyer (Will again), who lays claim to the letter, The aforementioned Nelly Ternan (Sara Catheryn Wolf) shows up, wanting to keep any mention of her affair private. A constable who hauls everyone down to the police station after the brouhaha moves to the park decides to hold it for evidence. The landlord who’s owed rent by Marx also wants to get his hands on it.

“Capital” is an interesting assemblage of historical characters and historical place, time, and fact. Fortunately, playwright Armstrong has made the play’s intentions anything but serious.

The writings of Karl Marx may have been flush with political and social import when they were published over a century and a half ago, but when delivered by Wetzel, they sound more whimsical rather than intellectual. Any talk that deals with the bourgeois, the proletariat, or manifestos of any kind, quickly dissolves into the more important issue of are we going to have a silk hat or not. And while Marx’s broomcorn beard lends an austere dignity to his historical portraits and photographs, Wetzel’s tawdry imitation undercuts any efforts towards respectability.

Director Leah Smith has assembled a cast who know how to do physical comedy. Dahl is uniformly exceptional. Wolf turns a hoop skirt into a running gag. Will is inherently funny. The divided set, with the Marx’s simple living quarters on one side of the stage and the city park on the other, skirts the border between realism and playfulness. Design is by Harry Wetzel.

Lighting design is by Thomas Schraeder, sound by Burr Huntington. The engaging period costumes are by designer Mary Cunningham, while Kelly Pino takes care of stage managing duties.


Premiere: ‘Capital’ good time at Detroit Rep

By Martin F. Kohn of Encore Michigan, March 25, 2017

Set in London in 1858, James Armstrong’s comedy Capital mixes political philosophy with the story of a poor girl’s longing for a silk bonnet. One would be tempted to call it Karl Marx meets Charles Dickens if it weren’t for the fact that in the second act, Karl Marx actually meets Charles Dickens.

And, yes, it’s a comedy; if not the first chase-around-the-living-room, hide-behind-the-hedges farce about economics, political philosophy and a serious moral dilemma, Capital is surely among the few.

Director Leah Smith emphasizes the fun in this world premiere production at Detroit Repertory Theatre.

Capital begins with Karl Marx (Harry Wetzel) in a heated exchange of ideas with his teenage daughter, Jenny (Lulu Dahl). Jenny desperately wants a silk bonnet because all the other girls have one. Away with such frivolity, Karl counters, the only thing of value is labor. Anyway, he can barely afford food and shelter; besides speaking for the proletariat, he is among their ranks, making a meager living as a journalist while working on his books.

Through a chance meeting with a stranger (Ben Will), the Marxes accidentally obtain a letter from Charles Dickens confessing to an affair with an actress, Nelly Ternan (Sara Catheryn Wolf). Marx could end his money woes by selling the letter to a scandal-hungry newspaper, but that would go against everything he believes in.

Karl wants to return the letter, Jenny wants to sell it (and get her bonnet), Nelly Ternan shows up to snag the letter for herself, and the chase is on, literally and figuratively.

The Rep’s compact stage doesn’t lend itself to run-around comedy but the cast manages pretty well and some moments are especially choice: Wolf’s wrestling the bottom of her ornate and oversized dress through the Marxes’ narrow doorway; she and Will having to wipe their faces after pronouncing the title of a play with a lot of P’s in it.

To add to the merriment, Smith has her actors play it broadly, as if they were in a 19th century melodrama, all except for Wetzel’s understated Karl Marx, a needed baseline from which the others can go over the top.

Armstrong’s best creation is Jenny, a combination of teenage petulance and intellectual acuity (she is her father’s daughter) captured nicely by Dahl. As the actress Nelly Ternan, Wolf, already over-acting as required, must find a second gear of over-acting (harder than it looks) when her character shows off.

Ben Will plays a variety of characters, from an archetypal “You must pay the rent” landlord to Mr. Dickens himself, making each distinctive. Armstrong’s ending comes as a surprise and there’s a postscript/curtain call song-and-dance that, while it may be authentic to the period, seems jarringly out of place.

Mary Copenhagen creates a striking variety of costumes, from the aforementioned recalcitrant dress to Marx’s somber and shabby suit to a London bobby’s uniform. Doing double duty, Wetzel has designed Marx’s convincingly rundown living quarters and a city park where significant action occurs. Thomas Schrader’s lighting never gets in the way, and sound designer Burr Huntington provides a well-curated collection of songs about money.