THERE IS MUCH TO admire in Paul Budraitis' adaptation of Herman Melville's 1853 short story, Bartleby, the Scrivener. The first-time playwright makes effective use of Melville's original language, and engages the complete text rather than picking and choosing his points. Working with James Cowan and Tricia Sexton, Budraitis switches focus from the title character's workplace difficulties -- Bartleby is a copyist in a legal office who refuses work by saying, cryptically, "I prefer not to" -- to the narrator's reaction to his new, inscrutable employee, drawing connections between the employer's reaction and the inarticulate hesitancy of Bartleby's protest.

It is in the staging that Bartleby stumbles. Budraitis and his collaborators attempt to dramatize the story while retaining Melville's wide-open symbolic range. Watching a story unfold that Melville chose to relate through a narrator slows the action, and changes the thrust of the story from a character study to reportage. Well-staged set pieces, such as a clever rendition of a trip to the country, and amusing character moments, like those enjoyed by Matt Ford and Yusef Lambert as Bartleby's co-workers, end up greatly detracting from the show's narrative momentum, and keep Melville's strident ambiguity from being grounded in a compelling context.

The cast is effective across the board; the most interesting performance belongs to Gavin Cummins as the narrator, the Solicitor. Cummins invests his Solicitor with a gentle bombast that becomes crucial in holding the audience's interest during the portentous mood-setting of the show's initial scenes.

That Melville's exquisitely executed story is less well realized on its feet should not surprise anyone. Budraitis' Bartleby explores the impotency of our reactions to those around us without fully realizing the inherent ways that stage plays, with their shifting perspectives and multiple avenues for expression, may themselves become more about avoidance than engagement.

Bartleby Declines Easy Interpretation

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