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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
After two and a half hours of watching Ralph, a sword wielding killer knight with a conscience, pursue his quest for his better self along with the more enthusiastically immoral Alred, I find the best way to sum up this world premiere at the Signature spacious Lydia Diamond Theater by paraphrasing Ralph: I certainly wish that Kenneth Lonergan would outgrow this fanciful, phase in a playwriting career that includes gems like This Is Our Youth, The Waverly Gallery, Lobby Hero, and his film You Can Count On Me.
Lonergan certainly shouldn't be faulted for trying something different from the realistic style and contemporary settings that made his reputation; neither has he opted for an easy new way to explore his ideas. Medieval Play is a Candidesque epic, that includes actual historical figures , like Catherine of Siena and various Popes, but focuses two fictional 14th Century mercenaries to explore men's ability to devise new technology and learn to be more mannerly about personal habits and yet fail to periodically muck up their nations' economies and get caught up in pointless bloody wars.
As Hugh Wheeler chose to make his adaptation of Voltaire's Candide into a musical so Lonergan has opted to make his knights and the people they encounter comic characters. (think Monty Python), and allow his dialogue to see-saw merrily between now and then. Alas, there's the rub. Mr. Lonergan's talents apparently do not lend themselves to comedy.
Ralph and Alfred's carricaturish adventures lack the satirical wit called for. The jokes are too broad and dependent on scatalogical shtick. With Lonergan also directing his own work, they, as well as everything else, are self-indulgently allowed to go on too long. What worked in Spamalot and still works in Saturday Night Live sketches, but works here only occasionally.
The 8-member cast is larger than usual for a Lonergan play. All except Josh Hamilton and Tate Donovan gamely and ably take on multiple roles. Given that the actors do their utmost to interest us in the over the top personas they portray, it's a shame that the Playbill cover doesn't feature them instead of the playwright. Hamilton, Donovan, and Heather Burns are all veterans of the playwright's earlier and better plays (Hamilton in Waverly Gallery and This Is Our Youth, Donovan and Burns in Lobby Hero). Hamilton and Donovan nicely contrast each other as the navel-gazing and less philosophical main characters. Heather Burns is elegant and amusing as Catherine of Siena who serves as the play's narrator. She also plays two ensemble roles.
Michael Krass brings his usual wit to the costumes. Walt Spangler's moving cardboard set pieces underscore are of a piece with the cartoonish sensibility. The exceptions to the flat as a knight's breastplate jokes are a very funny duel between knights in full regalia (bravo, fight director David Brimmer) and a banquet at which the entire cast is being wined and dined as their hostess Halley Feiffer) reads to them from Chapter 7 "concerning genteel conduct while at meal" from The Book of Modern Etiquette by Paolo di Pascoletti. Feiffer comes closest to getting the combination of now and then vernacular and slapstick comedy just right and has another winning scene in an R-rated, bed-rattling sex scene. But, like everythng about this play it goes on too long, — too long to stay the course beyond the intermission for quite a few people at the matinee I attended. If those who headed for the exit had remained to hear Catherine in her final turn as narrator wonder if there was any point to all the conflicts caused by the great schism between popes, they'd probably have applied her question to Medieval Play and answered with a resounding "No."
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