The two short, rarely-seen comedies on this engaging bill share a common plot point. In each, a young man is put on trial before a jury of his peers for misdeeds the jurors themselves could be guilty of, or at least sympathetic to.
The Devil and Daniel Webster, Stephen Vincent Benét’s 1938 stage version of his 1936 story, is set in 1841 New Hampshire. It tells of a farmer, Jabez Stone, whose marriage party is interrupted by the arrival of Satan. In return for success in business, politics, and love, Stone had sold his soul to Old Scratch ten years before, and now the devil has come to collect his due. But the bargain is challenged as unenforceable by Stone’s friend, the esteemed New England lawyer and statesman Daniel Webster. A hearing is quickly arranged before a jury of the damned—”twelve great sinners, tried and true,” summoned from hell, who end up serving as a sort of Greek chorus. Though Stone did indeed sign a contract with Scratch—in blood—Webster argues that the ideal of freedom is more important than any wrongs Stone has committed.
The program’s second half, Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1875 operetta Trial by Jury, concerns a breach-of-promise suit brought by a woman against a rascal who promised to marry her but then took up with another woman. The judge and jurors, all male, can relate to the defendant’s wayward conduct, but now, being respectable gentlemen seated in court, they feel obliged to side with the lady plaintiff. It’s vintage G&S, packed with sly digs at hypocrisy and incompetence among the powerful and privileged, all couched in whimsical, wittily rhymed lyrics and genteel melodies.
Director Terry McCabe’s 17-member ensemble is much larger than the casts usually seen on City Lit’s intimate stage, and the choral work, both spoken and sung, is excellent. v