Simon Says is a play that explores the realm of psychic phenomena, and the precognitive tells of a bumpy ride start early. The indicia of author self-production is in evidence—not always the curse it once was, owing to a professional climate that sometimes encourages just getting on any way you can—and it’s accompanied by an author’s bio that describes a lengthy career doing other things than playwriting, plus a degree in “Interdisciplinary Studies in Mysticism” from Tufts University, an elective major that (he says in an interview published online) he created for himself. That last is not in and of itself damning either; props to playwright Mat Schaffer for pursuing his interests and getting academic credit. The tell of the claim, though, is of a writer really wanting you to get that he knows what he’s talking about. Which suggests that the play itself will make the same effort. And sure enough. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
As the play begins, the character of an old parapsychology professor named Williston (Brian Murray) enters. Shortly thereafter enters the professor’s young protégé, James (Anthony J. Goes), a psychic channeler. He’s been looking forward to starting university studies, but discovers that Williston has withheld his tuition in an attempt to keep him close so they can continue their studies, via James’s link to an entity named Simon. An argument rages with James about to leave, but in comes distraught young Annie (Vanessa Britting), whose husband died violently in a car accident, and her desperate need for emotional resolution wears down James’s old resolve, and he agrees to stay.
And he channels Simon.
What happens then is a lot of talk about reincarnation, spirits who need to move on, the power of love, who each of the three may have been, and been to each other, in a past life; and there’s astonishingly little dramatic tension in it, just Simon ducking in and out of James, making for dramatic changes of posture and voice (stark, but not the same as dramatic tension); and the convolution of it all, added to an early-onset repetitiveness, combined with playwright Schaffer’s salting it with enough psychic philosophy for a page of small-print program footnotes, makes the evening feel more like an academic assignment than an entertainment.
Not helping things is a halting quality to the direction of Miriam Cyr. The play feels under-rehearsed. Nobody goes up on their lines, exactly, but there’s a feeling of lines always being grasped at, and of cues on the verge of being missed. It’s hard to tell if Brian Murray is a victim of this or unwittingly a contributor to it. Mr. Murray is one of the great imported talents of the American stage (he hails from South Africa, and has assayed many international English accents), and, not having seen him onstage in quite some time, I was soberly reminded of how time marches on. His physical stature has been somewhat diminished by the challenges of age (he’s a not-spry 78), and though he still has the spark behind the eyes, and the ability to hold stage, he shares with his fellow actors an inability to fully camouflage the effort of keeping up. As a result, the blocking attains a collateral raggedness too.
Full disclosure: This play and production (with different cast members, save for Mr. Goes), had a prior run in Boston, where the review were mixed, but encouraging enough, it seems, for gambling on NY, or at least the future-productions cachet of a NY run. And the night I attended—which was opening night and therefore hardly definitive, for a play such as this—large factions of the audience seemed quite enthusiastic.
But I found it an act of will beyond my (if I may say) formidable capabilities to channel that particular spirit…
Simon Says: Lynn Redgrave Theatre
Two quick post-mortems, for the sake of the regional, stock and amateur networks—
Gregory S. Moss’s Indian Summer, which recently closed at Playwrights Horizons, is a very pleasant, gentle four character play by the beach, about a teenage boy experiencing first love, and his grandfather grieving the loss of last (and lasting) love. Sweet, funny, and just a bit melancholy. Not a great play by any means, but it doesn’t seek to be. It’s just right for the summer fare suggested by the title.
And Incognito, which just ended at Manhattan Theatre Club, proved a far better play than Nick Payne’s last (Constellations; yes, I know how many people went nuts; it was the Emperor’s New Clothes). A play about mental stability and memory and perception, it’s an interweaving of three stories spanning several decades, in which four actors play 21 characters. This one is simple to produce, yet presents an intriguing challenge for both performers and actors, which much thematic meat on its intricately structured bones.