‘Harry Thaw’ is provocative but disappoints

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The lights grow dim, and the infamous Evelyn Nesbit (Rosie Hallett) appears under a spotlight on stage. With all eyes on her, she begins a monologue, describing a series of events based on an early-20th-century scandal. A glimpse into a provocative piece of gossip, this monologue builds into “Harry Thaw Hates Everybody,” a production that centers on the notorious love affairs of Nesbit, the turn-of-the-century actress and model.

The name “Nesbit” may ring a bell for viewers; it references a character from the film “The Girl in the Velvet Swing,” which this play follows in plot. The show focuses on acts committed by Nesbit’s millionaire husband, Harry Thaw (Keith Pinto), who murders her former lover, New York architect Stanford White (Steven Hess). Nesbit’s overbearing mother, Florence (Carla Pantoja), denies her the freedom to choose the only man she would truly love; this leaves her to follow her mother’s guidance in choosing men based on their financial status.

The show follows the four main leads — including the two men, Nesbit and her mother — in their accounts of the happenings. Hess’ performance adds to White’s character various levels of repulsion through cheap sexist jokes, while Pinto, as Thaw, plays with comedic choreography that just doesn’t work. The servants, one of whom just happens to be the only racial minority in the play, act as the silenced witnesses throughout the entirety of the story.

The provocative story aims high in terms of entertaining effects, but it ultimately falls flat. The two main male characters are repulsive, often performing soliloquies riddled with vulgar misogyny that paint them as a loathsome pair. White’s character lives as a well-known womanizer and carries out one too many puns to make him likeable at all. All of this persists as the women remain the objectified and the stereotyped gold diggers, given little to no significant voice in the first half of the show.

But the second half of the show remedies these problems. It seems to acknowledge these facts, and the voice of Nesbit perseveres amid it all. Her performance is the most creative in terms of script and dance choreography, with her storytelling reflecting the positive light in which she saw these characters during her lifetime. She holds the last 15 minutes or so of the show, bringing strength to her character with a rejuvenated voice that takes delight in the reasoning behind her flaws and life decisions.

These last few minutes contain what are quite possibly the only aspects of “Harry Thaw” that save the long and seemingly deteriorating play. Everything stops at the end of the third act, and the reality of the characters’ repulsive qualities comes into view. The last act serves as Nesbit’s vulnerable moments amid the chaos surrounding her and portrays the overly obsessed-over visual icon as an actual individual.

For some viewers, the wait through the first two acts and some of the third may be too long to enjoy the show. But toward the end of the play, it becomes more engaging to watch and listen to the characters take note of their flaws. The egotism, racism, sexism and greed accurately reflect the notions of the time. The show aims to emulate a story from an era that held onto male dominance and quieted voices of women, but it lacks much of an entertaining execution to make it all relevant and interesting.

Though the play’s provocative front unfortunately sits as an empty source of entertainment, “Harry Thaw Hates Everybody”’s ending will win the favor of those who admire the risks the production takes.

“Harry Thaw Hates Everybody” is running at Shotgun Players in Berkeley until Nov. 16.

Contact Melanie Jimenez at [email protected].