In a dilapidated lecture hall on the campus of a crumbling, crummy liberal-arts college, we hear two competing presentations on the work of the Romantic poet William Blake. Barefoot, beatific Bernard (O’Reilly) lectures in the morning on “Infant Joy,” from Blake’s Songs of Innocence; a clearly unhappy Ellen (Slickman) holds forth in the same classroom in the afternoon on “The Sick Rose,” one of Blake’s Songs of Experience. It quickly becomes clear in their temporally shifted talks that we’re seeing the aftermath of a scandalous assignation; the longtime lovers were seen by practically the whole campus the night before in an act of public sex.
In subtly, smartly rhymed verse, Maher’s play serves as both a primer on Blake and a critical inquiry into his work’s themes. In the afterglow of what he experienced as an act of ecstasy, Bernard practically beams with infant joy himself, while Ellen seethes with dark knowledge and doubt. How do innocence and experience reconcile themselves in the everyday of a 20-year love, “all those jokes and laundry”? Goosed by precise, masterful performances, Maher’s text is almost endlessly engaging and frequently hilarious. (Things do start to get repetitive after a third character shows up.) It’s a tantalizing examination of love’s dark secrets.