Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Off Broadway: Midsummer [a play with songs]

Matthew Pidgeon and Cora Bissett in MIDSUMMER [A PLAY WITH SONGS].  Photo by Douglas Roberstson.

Midsummer [a play with songs] by David Greig has finally arrived in New York with its batch of mixed messages.  “Change Is Possible” is one (that one actually appears in lights on stage) but, at the same time, everything’s pre-determined so don’t think that you can affect matters because, as Helena (Cora Bissett) expresses it: “You think you’re making a decision but, in fact, whatever happened - it was already something you were going to do....Life deals us the cards and it turns out we don’t even play them we simply turn them over and see what we’ve got.  The pack gets shuffled when you’re born and all the rest’s just a slow unwinding.

Or again, in contemplation of Bob’s (Matthew Pidgeon’s) turning 35, Helena asks despondently: “Is this it?” to which Bob’s answer effectively is “Yes.”  He does express it less succinctly: “Basically we face a long slow haul towards death.  Every day will hold fewer surprises than the last.  Our body will decay irreversibly.  We will become less open to new ideas.  We will become increasingly aware of decay and waste….Disappointment will become our default position as each bright dream of our youth is snuffed out one after the other after the other.”  Pretty much of a downer, right?

And yet elsewhere, when Helena remarks that “…when you see them - the runners – weaving and glistening through the crowds – you might think ‘look at them, the fools, they’re trying to run away from death’ – but they’re not – they’re honestly not – they’re running towards something – ” to which Bob responds, “And sometimes – when the road and the rhythm and pace is just right – they lose the boundaries of themselves and catch it just for a moment - ”

One last example: Both Bob and Helena dwell on the fact that individuals are necessarily lonely and separated from one another
“…there are only inches between us
But there might as well be mountains and trees
In this lonely distance between us
There are cities and oceans and seas…”

And yet Bob also sings:

“…these could be the best days of our lives,
So you said to me,
And now we start again…
Could these be the best days of our lives?”

So what are we to make of it all?  I think that what the playwright is saying is Que Sera, Sera – whatever will be will be – and maybe there’s nothing you can do about it, but that doesn’t mean that whatever happens will necessarily be bad.  Maybe at least some of the random cards you’ll be dealt will turn out to be good ones after all.  So (to mix a metaphor), don’t throw in the towel (if you’re willing to assume that it’s even in your power to decide whether or not to throw in the towel in the first place, which in turn can get us bogged down in an infinite loop of philosophical sophistry).  Or maybe not.  And anyway it can’t hurt to try because maybe you will be able to affect matters after all.  Who knows?

And that’s what I think that Greig has done in this play, only he’s expressed it in much more entertaining fashion than I just have.  Bob is a petty car thief with no distinctive features (which is why he’s referred to as “medium Bob.”)  One wouldn’t expect him to be a frustrated poet or to be reading Dostoevsky or to dream of being an itinerant busker  – but he is and he does.  Helena is an elegantly attired divorce lawyer who has just been stood up by her date (likely her married lover).  One wouldn’t expect these two to even meet, let alone embark on an impetuous sexual relationship – but they do.  That’s just the way the cards were dealt.

One thing leads to another.  A night of sexual excess.  A weekend of debauchery. Japanese bondage.  Goths.  Fine wines.  Alcoholic blackouts.  Stolen funds. Threats on Bob’s life.  Chase scenes.  Miraculous escapes.  Wedding disasters.  It was all in the cards and it is very, very funny.

Midsummer [a play with songs] was a big hit at the 2009 Edinburgh Festival Fringe and went on to tour England, Ireland, Canada, Australia, and Washington, DC.  Now it has come to the Clurman Theatre on Theatre Row on West 42nd Street with the original cast, both of whom, Cora Bissett and Matthew Pidgeon, are absolutely terrific in this rollicking two-hander. And my only regret is that the show’s run is limited (it’s scheduled to run only through January 26).  But who knows?  Maybe it’s been written in the stars that it will be extended beyond that date.  I certainly hope so.

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