Review: "The Devil and the Playwright" Is Diabolically Fun

The Devil and the Playwright

Written by Steven J. Harris

Directed by Bradly Valenzuela

Presented at Theater for the New City

155 First Ave, Manhattan, NYC

April 26-30, 2023

Tori Jewell and Fé Torres. Photo by Ai Toyoshima
 In The Devil and the Playwright, from Swiss playwright and actor Steven J. Harris, titular playwright Jordy (Tori Jewell) joins the rolls of those artists, fictional and non-fictional, who have (or in the latter case, are said to have) offered their souls to the Devil in exchange for success. The distinction between fictional and non-fictional all but melts away in the aftermath of Jordy's own Faustian bargain, as The Devil and the Playwright whisks her along a Stoppard-adjacent, quasi-picaresque, and extremely meta journey. Jordy's travails treat the audience to a sharp-witted and uproariously funny show that explores the nexus of page, stage, life, and love.
 Ellis Charles Hoffmeister and Flo Maier. Photo by Ai Toyoshima
In a preview of what is to come, the show explicitly (and comically) positions itself as a show even before we meet Jordy, who is struggling to write a new play but has, as she puts it, "got nothing," It doesn't take long before Jordy is putting her soul on offer and the Devil (Fé Torres) is on the scene, and equally quickly, Jordy finds herself transported and observing a pair of players (Flo Maier and Ellis Charles Hoffmeister) who reappear throughout the play in different guises and whose ontological status remains enjoyably unclear. Here, they are (or are playing or there is no difference) a charming prince and his male lover. The Devil tells Jordy that he is trying to help her write an unconventional love story and, as with many literary devils, this turns out to be both not true and true at the same time (early on, Jordy says that sounding true is what is important, a claim that might find numerous applications and echoes throughout the play). Jordy, though, wants a change of scenery (since magic is involved, whether literal or of the playwriting variety, why not?), which brings her into contact with Joanne (Sarah Jordan Hupper). Joanne occupies the same indeterminate status as the players, but that does not stop Jordy from being drawn to her, which not only brings her into conflict with the Devil but also highlights the possible parallels between them.
Tori Jewell and Sarah Jordan Hupper. Photo by Ai Toyoshima
In these parallels, Jordy can be seen both as an individual and as an avatar for Writers (her soul, she tells us at one point, is, appropriately for an artist, a tortured one), and the audience members find themselves in a position akin to watching and being part of the play as it is being created, a recursive conceit reminiscent of a dramatic Tristram Shandy. Bold lighting design by Bradon O'Connell plays a fundamental role in incorporating the audience in this way, as well as in signifying shifts in and manipulations of the play's realities. Maier and Hoffmeister make a fantastic comic pairing as they cycle through personae ranging from would-be womanizing barflies to a sad clown and his companion, who reacts to the former's pain and sincerity like a killer stand-up routine (their trading of insults at one point culminating in an allusion to Godot). Jewell and Hupper are compellingly natural in the markedly unnatural situations in which their characters find themselves, and Torres satisfyingly underplays his Mephistophelian role.
Fé Torres and Tori Jewell. Photo by Ai Toyoshima
While The Devil and the Playwright is pleasingly unpredictable until the end, it also establishes as one throughline a consideration of how we relate to the world and to others, both directly and filtered through words. And it offers all of this for far less a price than your soul.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

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