Theater review by Helen Shaw
When the housewife, mystic and aggressively loud crier Margery Kempe dictated The Book of Margery Kempei n the 1430s, she made history. Hers was probably the first autobiography in English, and it provides an astonishing window into the medieval mind, as well as a self-portrait of a soi-disant oddball. John Wulp’s play The Saintliness of Margery Kempepays homage to her with tongue in cheek: He sends up her religiosity, assumes her claims of miracles and visions were bunkum and makes her an attention-seeker and a bit of a pill. Frances Sternhagen played Margery in the play’s troubled 1959 Off Broadway production—there’s a hilarious account of it in Wulp’s own autobiography—and now director Austin Pendleton has cast Andrus Nichols in a revival that hasn’t found itself.
Performance-wise, it’s all over the place. Nichols is pert and annoying, which I mean as a compliment—it’s an impressively vanity-free performance, and right for the role. Other actors, though, seem unconvinced that it’s actually show time, doing great work one moment then cracking up or tripping over a line the next. And visually, it’s dry as a communion wafer. Wulp himself designed the set: a group of large, faded props plopped in front of a plain dark curtain. The show wants to be outdoors, perhaps set up on a wagon at the edge of a market town as the medieval Mystery plays once were. If Pendleton’s company were performing on the steps of some local cathedral, it would be easier to enjoy the production’s let’s-put-on-a-show scrappiness, but against the sere blackness of the Duke on 42nd Street it looks sad.
Nearly half of Wulp’s comedy is repetitive and, in this iteration, unfunny. After a long stretch of dullness, the play finds a spark of energy in its second act. In its best sequence, Kempe pesters a group of pilgrims into taking her along to the Holy Land, then won’t let them eat sausages or pursue bodily pleasures on the trip. The show’s finest comedian, Jason O’Connell, does some wonderful swooning as a friar who can’t keep her in line. “Why? Why?” he cries at her as she pitches another religious fit. There’s relevance here—something about our seemingly endless appetite for attention, or about the performative nature of holiness itself. But the play needs more beauty, more speed, more strangeness, more noise. It’s the Middle Ages, for Saint Bridget’s sake: We crave strong ale, and they’re giving us water.
Duke Theater on 42nd Street (Off Broadway). By John Wulp. Directed by Austin Pendleton. With Andrus Nichols. 2hrs 15mins. One intermission.