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“I am an American, Chicago born.” A quarter-century ago, those words were still familiar enough that you could have used them as a high-dollar “Double Jeopardy!” clue and expected any contestant with a halfway serious interest in the contemporary novel to know their author. Today, though, only specialists in postwar American fiction are likely to recognize the once-famous opening line of “The Adventures of Augie March,” the 1953 novel that put Saul Bellow on the map of American literature….
This makes it all the more surprising that the Court Theatre, the professional theater of the University of Chicago, has just given the premiere of David Auburn’s new stage adaptation of “Augie March,” which is every bit as ambitious as the 600-page book on which it’s based. Staged with staggering éclat by Charles Newell, the Court’s artistic director, it is totally and triumphantly successful, a three-and-a-half-hour seriocomic extravaganza so light on its feet that it scarcely feels two hours long….
But why the initial surprise? Because “Augie March” is a stage version of a major novel, a bastard genre notoriously difficult to bring off. As John Simon put it in an apothegm known to drama critics as Simon’s Law, “There is a simple law governing the dramatization of novels: if it is worth doing, it can’t be done; if it can be done, it’s not worth doing.” Mr. Simon was stretching it a bit, as Kate Hamill has proved in recent seasons with her witty adaptations of “Pride and Prejudice,” “Sense and Sensibility” and “Vanity Fair.” Even so, he was onto something, for great novels don’t need to be dramatized—they are by definition sufficient unto themselves. And that’s the loophole through which Mr. Auburn has slipped with Bellow’s picaresque tale of a poor young Jewish immigrant who girdles the world in search of his “purest feelings”: “Augie March” is not really a great novel, much as it strains to be. Sprawlingly long and over-lush in diction, it lacks the artistic self-discipline necessary to hit the pinpoint bull’s-eye of true greatness. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that Mr. Auburn has improved on the novel, imposing on it a welcome tautness and pruning its self-consciously exuberant verbal excesses….
Thirteen actors play 40 different parts in Mr. Auburn’s script. The only one who sticks to a single role is Patrick Mulvey, who is appropriately winning as Augie, an earnest naïf too easily swayed from the path of self-knowledge by the men and women who pass through his eventful life. Everyone else doubles, triples and quadruples, and Mr. Newell has assembled an ensemble cast full of resourceful performers, each of whom makes a deep and distinctive impression…
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A montage of scenes from The Adventures of Augie March:
David Auburn talks about the play: