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Gorey: The Secret Lives of Edward Gorey
Photograph: Jenny Anderson

Theater review: The Secret Lives of Edward Gorey will surely draw you in

Written by
David Cote

The men onstage know each other intimately but maintain a respectful, almost shy distance. They range from college-aged to senior citizenry. Yet as they trade observations on childhood, first loves and the pains of growing old, little gestures of affection emerge: a reassuring pat on the shoulder, a hand resting innocently on a knee during a juicy bit of gossip. They might be chatty relatives or an odd trio of roommates. In fact, they are phases of Edward Gorey (1925–2000), the genius illustrator and writer who produced nearly a hundred books over 47 years. Each was meticulously drawn in his signature style of dense cross-hatching, depicting Edwardian gentlemen and neurasthenic feather boa’ed society ladies, plus the occasional menacing urn, smug cat or creeping creature. If, in this fictional portrayal, the man who created that tremulous, midnight realm keeps his own self at arm’s length, it makes sense. “Why be one person when you can be…hundreds?” Gorey 1 (Andrew Dawson) queries. Like Whitman, the camp-gothic bard contained multitudes—and was perfectly happy to be lost in the crowd.

Travis Russ’s lovingly crafted 75-minute play is less concerned with the nitty-gritty of Gorey’s publishing career or his approach to drawing (lots of grumbling and self-criticism) and more with his breezy evasions and elliptical musings on an eccentric, solitary life. A dandyish student at Harvard (his roommate was poet Frank O’Hara), Gorey moved to New York in the 1950s, working in advertising while shopping his weird, cryptic portfolio to magazines. His black-and-white world of tweedy figures and sere landscapes, often captioned with nonsense verse, eventually gained a cult following—a fandom that increased when his art was used in the credit sequence for PBS’s Mystery.

Never married and self-admittedly asexual, Gorey spent the last 14 years of his life in a rickety ex–sea-captain’s home on Cap Cod. The play, which costars Phil Gillen as a twentyish, moony Gorey and Aidan Sank as the artist in bearded, relatively confident middle years, takes place in an imaginary version of that house, crammed floor to ceiling with all manner of rusty tools or antique toys that Gorey obsessively accumulated. It’s Grey Gardens with a better work ethic. The mood flits gently from whimsical to melancholy and dryly bemused.

For the proud owner of the anthology Amphigorey and its sequels, The Secret Lives of Edward Gorey (handsomely produced by Life Jacket Theatre Company) is a visit to an old friend who always amuses and sometimes surprises. Newcomers, take care: Gorey’s macabre, intricately detailed universe can addict and overwhelm. The man himself was an object lesson.

Sheen Center (Off Broadway). Written and directed Travis Russ. With Andrew Dawson, Phil Gillen, Aidan Sank. Running time: 1hr 15mins. No intermission. Through Jan 14. Click here for full ticket and venue information. 

Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote       

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