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June 16, 2012

"Medieval Play" Isn't One for the History Books

It’s usually not a good thing when your favorite part of a show is its scenery. That’s the way I felt after I saw Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark and that’s the way I felt when I walked out of Medieval Play, the new Kenneth Lonergan comedy that is running at The Pershing Square Signature Center through June 24.

And there’s another similarity between those shows: both are built around smart and intriguing ideas that got overwhelmed by the self-indulgence of their creators. 

Lonergan made his name with such plays as This is Our Youth and Lobby Hero about modern-day slackers, well-meaning but aimless and apathetic young men usually working in dead-end jobs. He’s kept the character type in this new work but he’s radically changed the setting. Medieval Play takes place in 14th century Europe during the wars between rival popes.

The play's protagonists are Sir Ralph (Josh Hamilton) and Sir Alfred (Tate Donovan) two knights-for-hire caught up in the decades-long conflict. At times, they are like Hamlet’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, side players to the main action who provide comic commentary on the goings on.  And at others, they are versions of Waiting for Godot’s Vladimir and Estragon, everymen wrestling with the big existential stuff like faith in God and loyalty to one’s friends.  Sounds promising either way, right?

Alas, neither promise gets fulfilled. The problem is that Lonergan is so busy showing off how much he knows about the period and making himself laugh that he loses all perspective.  The moral questions get trampled and the same jokes get hit over and over and over again.  An adept director might have helped but Lonergan serves as his own director and allows his playwright to frolic unbridled.

The show’s main conceit is that the medieval characters talk like today's hipsters. Anachronisms, profanity and scatological behavior abound. Saints drop F-bombs. A couple engages in a long, bare-butts sex scene.  One of the knights decides to take a dump on stage. And everyone makes meta references about their times and ours.

It’s the kind of stuff that might be funny for about five minutes in a “Saturday Night Live” skit but Lonergan stretches it out for nearly three hours.  Whole rows of people fled during intermission at the performance I attended. Those of us who soldiered on fell into conversations during the break and afterward on the way out of the theater in which the word “sophomoric” could be heard echoing from one group to the next.

As usual, the cast is game, particularly the six who play a dizzying variety of roles from noblemen and saints to peasants and whores. Heather Burns stands out as an officious saint Catherine of Siena, who often serves as the show's narrator, providing the historic context and filling the audience in on all the research that Lonergan did. 

I’ve always been fascinated by the Middle Ages and so those were almost my favorite parts. The only thing I liked better was set designer Walt Spangler’s simple but witty Candlyand version of the medieval European landscape and its castles. Some of the stuff he came up with really made me laugh and did it without trying too hard.

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