Pershing Square Signature Center. Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan. With ensemble cast. 2hrs 35mins. One intermission.
If nothing else, Kenneth Lonergan’s seriously loopy Medieval Play will supplement your vocabulary with esoteric knightspeak: seneschal, trebuchet, pauldron, crenel, merlon, vambrace. Swoon to the music of those nasty, brutish and short syllables, a muddy scrum between French and Anglo-Saxon influences. The lingo crops up in the opening scene of this shaggy, dopey, 14th-century picaresque, which suggests Lonergan doing Tom Stoppard via Monty Python.
Medieval Play belongs to a theatrical subgenre dear to my heart: metahistorical farce. Like in Itamar Moses’s Bach at Leipzig and Amy Freed’s The Beard of Avon, characters talk in an anachronistic modern idiom and they’re improbably mindful of their own historicity. “By God, things certainly are grim here in Medieval France,” goes the first line, and it gets more self-aware from there. Moving scenery spooks the knights; in asides to the audience, they laud carrier pigeons; and a sassy Catherine of Siena (adorable Heather Burns) shovels tons of researched exposition into our laps to explain the Great Papal Schism of 1378. Midway through one of her long-winded background lectures, exasperated Sir Ralph (Josh Hamilton) cries, on behalf of the audience, “These people have lives.”
Lonergan may be aware that his play is overwritten, misshapen and self-indulgent. But I suspect he doesn’t care. Medieval Play has so much going for it—a terrific cast (including the marvelous John Pankow, Tate Donovan and Halley Feiffer), apt illuminated-manuscript sets and scores of smart, vicious jokes—but it’s too long and trivial. What might have been a 90-minute lark with something to say about moral awakening in times of sectarian idiocy and state-sanctioned violence devolves into a college-troupe sketch that doesn’t know when to stop. That is to say, I laughed my ass off, then became aware that it was getting sore.—David Cote
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