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Lucy Komisar

“Dedication, or the Stuff of Dreams” exudes cynicism. Do lies and illusions mark not only theater but also those who make it?
Nathan Lane and Alison Fraser in Terrence McNally's "Dedication or The Stuff of Dreams." Photo: James Leynse.

“Dedication, or the Stuff of Dreams.”
Written by Terrence McNally. Directed by Michael Morris.
Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters, 59 E. 59 St.
Opened Aug. 18, 2005.
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar Aug. 17, 2005.
ClosesOctober 2, 2005.

Terrence McNally’s new play is a dark, often cynical look at the mix of fantasy and honesty that marks not only theater but the people who perform in it. Marion Seldes delivers a bravura performance, but otherwise the work is strangely unsettling and often seems less than the sum of its parts.

At issue is whether a couple of actors devoted to theater will get a dying rich widow, Seldes, to give them the abandoned old playhouse she owns. It was supposed to be a paen to those who devote themselves to the theater, but that message gets lost in soap-opera-style plots which involve characters’ unfulfilling or abnormal personal and sexual relationships.

Lou (Nathan Lane) and Jesse (Alison Fraser), who run the suburban nonprofit children’s theater, have gender-neutral names and a sexless relationship. Since they are not married, that shouldn’t matter, but their shared passion for the theater is set against Jesse’s secret affair with Arnold (Michael Countryman), their colleague and technical director.

Jesse’s daughter Ida (Miriam Shor), a tacky-looking drug-recovering rock singer, is not much of a poster-child for admirable male-female relations. She blithely admits that she treats her leather-jacketed, chain-bedecked boyfriend and soundman, Toby (Darren Pettie), like dirt. He doesn’t seem to mind.

Rich Annabelle Willard (an incomparable Marian Seldes), selfish, cynical, bitter and in pain from terminal cancer, seems generally misanthropic. She refers to opera divas as “Mme Butterball,” proclaims “Eat the whales,” and declares, “I don’t like children. I don’t like theater.” But when spoken dryly by a svelte Seldes clad in an elegant white suit, such acerbic remarks sound less harsh and more like quips thrown off by Dorothy Parker. Still, the stage comes alive only when she is on it.

Cynical Lou’s own stabs at humor are trite. “Shakespeare has too many words” and they are “yada yada yada in iambic pentameter.” “Comps killed the theater. No one ever asked Aeschylus for comps.” And the old saw, “Other than that, how did you enjoy the play, Mrs. Lincoln?” Through the humor pokes a resentment that Lou and Jesse didn’t make it in theatrical New York.

The odd couple confront their own backstage lies and illusions. For Lou, it is that as a child, he put on his mother’s skirt and “twirled,” ie., he is homosexual. For Jesse, it is that she is having a secret affair. But McNally never explains why Jesse can’t be a partner in Captain Lou’s Theater for Kids while discreetly sleeping with Arnold.

There’s a contest of cynicism vs. hope which seems to be won by the horrors and darkness that lurk behind theater. The task of persuading Mrs. Willard to donate her venue for children’s plays involves nastiness on all sides.

McNally has little sympathy for the dying millionaire. Her driver’s main job is carrying around a shaker to refill her martini glass. She is a vulgar sophisticate, declaring, “Annabelle: it’s such a louche name. It makes me think of moist sexual organs.”

“Twirl for me and I’ll give you my theater,” she tells Lou. Is she taunting him or asking him to come out of the closet? Is the partnership between two people dedicated to the theater (Lou and Jesse) more important and better than the relationship of lovers? Or should true theater spirits do anything, give up anything, to put on their shows?

Lou moves the spotlight with a broom. So, maybe McNally wants us to believe that it’s their fantasy – and their dreams – that are real.

Seldes, of course, dominates the show, while Lane as Lou and Fraser as Jesse are curiously unprepossessing. And both seem sexless; Jesse’s affair with Arnold is not very believable. Shor and Petti as the punk music couple are caricatures. R.E. Rodgers, the muscular driver (he was Mr. Vermont), is appealing, carrying out his service with a style and dignity the others lack.

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