Both Lane and Seldes in their different ways are terrific, though McNally’s characters at times seem moronic and unreal, This must be seen as a stumble in a fine playwright’s career.
There are definite limits to the help a foundering, empty play can derive from even the most solid, most inventive work on the part of the actors cast in its major roles.
A case in point, and an exemplary one, to boot, is currently on view at the new 59E59 theater complex, where Terrence McNally’s “Dedication of the Stuff of Dreams” will be on view until Sept. 18, with an extension a distinct possibility.
The actors who are holding the shaky venture together, virtually with their teeth, are Marian Seldes and Nathan Lane, heading up the generally strong, seven-actor cast assembled by director Michael Morris.
“Dedication” is the play which McNally wrote in 2002, on commission from the Manhattan Theatre Club, the organization which produced much of the playwright’s work across the years.
The MTC’s intention was to use the play to reopen Broadway’s Biltmore Theatre, which had been derelict and in decay for 16 years, had recently been acquired by the group, and wondrously restored to serve as the organization’s primary home.
The use to which the play was to be put may have influenced McNally’s choice of subject, the theater, and his plot, which involves a sagging playhouse in dire need of reconstruction.
MTC’s chief, Lynne Meadow, rejected “Dedication” and the play was acquired by the Primary Stages group for their new space at 59E59, a chic cluster of stages which took its name from its address. McNally’s ‘The Stendhal Syndrome” had been part of the first Primary Stages season in the space.
After being given a single staged reading at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s new space, the Laura Pels, formerly the site of the American Place theatre, “Dedication” received its premiere in the summer of 2004 at Massachusetts’ Williamstown Theatre Festival.
Now, with four of its seven roles recast, McNally’s lay has reached New York, with decidedly mixed results.
“Dedication” is artifice incarnate. Influenced or not by MTC and the Biltmore, what McNally has come up with is a coy, vapid love letter to the theater, a self-conscious anecdote, really, stretch like a drumskin over two long, tedious acts.
Lou Nuncle and his longtime “partner,” Jessie, are devoted to children’s theater, a show business off-ramp they practice, it seems in a strip mall in upstate New York. McNally is vague about the actual place the couple displays their art, but it’s probably an abandoned storefront, or something of the sort.
Thee is, however, a once-grand, now-decrepit theater in the area, probably the kind of place where touring opera companies would stop for a night or two bringing culture to otherwise parched small American towns, in the days when the 19th century was in the process of turning into the 20th.
Lou and Jessie are, of course, aware of the old wreck of a theater, and they also know that the owner is an elderly woman, as wealthy as she is eccentric. The old lady, Annabelle Willard, unfortunately, loathes children as intensely as she detests the theater.
In an act of shameless contrivance, McNally brings thorny old Annabelle into the lives of Lou and Jessie, who, through an equally manipulated plot point, have managed to visit the crumbling old theater building, examining some of the primitive stage equipment gathering dust over the passing decades.
McNally has cluttered his play with shallow, pointless subsidiary characters, including Ida Head, a vulgar rock star daughter for Jessie, conceived in a much earlier relationship.
Ida comes equipped with a sadistic, but basically adoring punked-out boyfriend, Toby Cassidy, as likely to slug her as hug her.
Also in Jessie’s orbit is Arnold Chalk, an enigmatic Briton functioning as the kiddie troupe’s technical director, but also on the scene because he is her lover.
Accompanying Annabelle, when she finally arrives, rather late in the protracted first act is Edward, a onetime college wrestling star, now working as the old woman’s chauffeur and rolling bartender, always at the ready with a thermos full of martinis.
Annabelle reveals early on that she is dying of cancer, and that the martinis are a form of pain killer. She knows that Lou and Jessie would love to be the inheritors of her theater once she does die, and she is more or less willing, provided her sad and, bizarre conditions are respected and fulfilled.
If McNally envisioned “dedicated” as a sentimental valentine expressing his own intense love of the theater, he’s come up short-handed because the declarations of theatrical order and fidelity he’s put in the mouths of Lou and Jessie come across, for the most, as sophomoric and mindless, making the characters come across as both unreal and moronic.
When “Dedication” was produced at Williamstown, Lou and Jessie were played by Boyd Gaines and Debra Monk. The New York production cast Peter Frechette and Patricia Kalimbar, but when Frechette defected during rehearsals, Lane came into the picture, at least partly out of loyalty to McNally, with whom he’d worked on several previous occasions.
Kalimbar was replaced by Alison Fraser, reportedly because she seemed a better fit with Lane. Stalwart from the start, Seldes soldiered on, as did the excellent Darren Pettie and R.E. Rodgers, both in lesser roles, Pettie as Toby, the roadie with a secret passion for Shakespeare, and Rodgers as Edward, the driver with a license to operate a cocktail shaker without regard to conventional speed limits.
Lane, who had a previous commitment to the upcoming Broadway revival of Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple,” in which he will appear opposite Matthew Broderick, his co-star from his triumph in “The Producers,” will leave the cast this weekend. His replacement, starting on Tuesday, Sept. 6, will be Don Amendolia.
Miriam Shor will stay on as Ida, as will veteran Michael Countryman, fighting a gallant battle to inject a fleeting sense of logic and credibility in the scantily written role of Arnold.
Amid the clutter and the shaky sub-plots, it falls to Lane and, particularly to the indomitable Seldes, to drive a core of credibility and compassion into a vehicle which is notably lacking in either quality, at least in any identifiable, genuine form.
Lane, giving what is probably the simplest, least embellished performance of his career makes the whole of “Dedication” seem vastly better than it is, and even makes something remotely playable of an odd monologue in which he tells his audience, unseen or otherwise, of his childhood habit of trying on his mother’s fullest skirts, in order to “twirl” in front of a mirror and, one supposes, indulge his inner girl.
Seldes’ Annabelle, in one of the plays least credible moments, witnesses Lou’s revelation as, one assumes, she hides in one of the old theater’s apparently countless nooks and crannies.
If the gallant Lane succeeds, at least in part, by underplaying, Seldes gives a particularly flat-out, full-throttle performance, and, by sheer dint of will, makes it work. If her mannered performance sometimes seems a bit over-the-top, much to the screaming delight of her audience, it would be difficult to imagine Annabelle being played in any less florid way and still making the desired impact.
“Dedication,” at least in its early innings, seems to stop and start like the insecure contraption it truly is, and this may be the result of director Morris’ inability to rein in a play that often threatens to come apart at the seams.
Or, just as easily, the production’s unevenness could be a product of McNally’s failure to discipline his materials, or, earlier on, to come up with a plot and a concept that really holds water.
Whatever the case, Nathan Lane and Marian Seldes are giving a textbook example of how far truly gifted actors can go to shore up a conspicuously leaky vessel.
As for Seldes, what McNally has provided is a fat part for a thin actress.
If “Dedication or the Stuff of Dreams” is something of the stumble in the playwright’s career, it should be remembered that Terrence McNally is one of the few writers who has, everything taken into consideration, improved with the passage of time, honing his craft, and producing, much of the time work of genuine, if frequently slick, merit.