The Glory of the World

Theater, Experimental
3 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

The Glory of the World: Theater review by Helen Shaw

It takes a little while—maybe even the entirety of The Glory of the World—to realize that Charles Mee has titled his latest show ironically. Surely, we think, Mee is in his customary ecstatic mode, praising the wonders around us? In his long catalog of plays, Mee has delighted in worldly things. Paeans to temporal joys (coffee, the sunflowers in France, gossip) almost always appear alongside discussions of love and literature. So it's strange to see those pleasures pall in The Glory of the World, his tribute to the monk/mystic Thomas Merton. For once a Mee play makes us long to turn away from the material and retreat into cool silence.

The show is imagined as the 100th birthday party for Merton, the prolific writer of works including The Seven Storey Mountain, a blockbuster 1948 memoir about his time in a Trappist monastery. World doesn't paint a portrait of Merton so much as riff on his legacy: A massive corps of 19 men wear party hats and bicker over Merton's identity, squabbling about whether he was, at root, a Catholic, a Communist or a Buddhist.

This disagreement pulls apart the play-structure itself; much of the evening is spent in dance numbers (choreographed by Barney O'Hanlon) or neon-lit mayhem (staged by director Les Waters), all of which seems to go on several moments too long. A discussion of Buddhism turns into a brawl, and an intellectual conversation about Merton's legacy devolves into an endless series of quotes. If you don't know much about the subject going in, you won't know much more coming out, and you may find yourself frustrated that a work about a thinker refuses to sustain any single thought.

This, we realize in the show's final moments, is the point. The piece's framing device is quietude itself: in surprisingly long scenes at the beginning and end of the evening, Merton (played by director Waters or Will Oldham) sits alone at a table and does not speak. Projections behind him ask us “What is serious? What is unserious?” and try to turn us toward contemplation. Before the piece, the quiet was difficult to bear—we were impatient for some drama to begin. But that long central section, busy with men flexing and jockeying for attention, has been hectic and ugly; even the sweetest moments (two men swim on a plastic sheet, couples kiss and sway) turned sickly from repetition. The Glory of the World  has shown us a tinsel glory, a trash wonder—what Merton called the “wild carnival we carry in our hearts.” By the end, the monk's decision to go into silence seems necessary, and bruised by the show that was, our own minds yearn towards it too.—Helen Shaw

BAM Harvey Theater (Off Broadway). By Charles L. Mee, Jr. Directed by Les Waters. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission. 

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Event website: http://www.bam.org
Event phone: 718-636-4100

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