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Paulanne Simmons

What They Did for Love: “Dedication or The Stuff of Dreams”

Nathan Lane and Alison Fraser in Terrence McNally's "Dedication or The Stuff of Dreams." Photo: James Leynse.

“Dedication or The Stuff of Dreams”
Directed by Michael Morris
Primary Stages
59E59 Theaters
59 East 59th St.
Tues. at 7 p.m., Wed. thru Sat. at 8 p.m. Sat. matinee at 2 p.m., Sun. matinee at 3 p.m.
Special added matinee performance on Wed. Sept 14 at 2 p.m.
$60, www.ticketcentral.com or (212) 279-4200
Opened Aug. 18, closes October 2
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons Aug. 13, 2005

When Prospero says the famous line “We are such stuff as dreams are made on” in “The Tempest,” his next words are “and our little life is rounded with a sleep.” Shakespeare seems to be saying that all our dreams end in death. But these days when people talk about the stuff of dreams they seem to be thinking of more promising outcomes. So it is with Terrence McNally’s “Dedication or The Stuff of Dreams” at Primary Stages for a limited engagement through Sept 18.

Dedication or The Stuff of Dreams is directed by Michael Morris and stars McNally’s good friend Nathan Lane as Lou Nuncle, an amiable producer of children’s entertainment who dreams of owning his own theater, and the venerable Marian Seldes as Annabelle Willard, the dying, misanthropic old lady whose fortune makes his dream come true. It also features fine performances by Alison Fraser as Lou’s partner, Jessie, and R.E. Rodgers as Mrs. Willard’s driver, Edward.

Dedication or The Stuff of Dreams is a two-act play. Both acts take place in the dilapidated theater owned by Mrs. Willard. The first act introduces all the above mentioned characters as well as Lou and Jessie’s technical man, Arnold Chalk (Michael Countryman), and Jessie’s estranged daughter, the punk rock star Ida Head (Miriam Shor), and her devoted boyfriend, Toby Cassidy (Darren Pettie). But most of the first act is a series of loving jokes about theater.

The actors make fun of Shakespeare (“King Lear or Dumbo, there’s no contest,” says Lou). They bemoan the advent of theater comps. And if a good deal of the humor seems aimed at others in the business, none of it is so obscure it cannot be enjoyed by the general public.

One of the high points of Act I is Lou’s speech to an imaginary audience of children, in which he reminds them that it is their job to keep Tinkerbell alive, to understand that theater has somehow changed them, and most important, to keep breathing during the entire show. It is in this speech that Lou pours out his love of theater and his dedication to his art and his young audiences.

Act I is truly delightful. But in Act II McNally introduces so many new themes it becomes difficult to be sure what he is really driving at. There are questions about the nature of Lou’s sexuality, his relationship with Jessie, the morality of euthanasia and the value of sacrifice in love. Much of this is introduced too late and with little or no preparation. McNally may have thought that surprise would heighten the drama in the second act, but thematically, it is hard to tie the new elements to the idea of dedication to art, which is the core of the play. Even worse, the surprise twists up time that could have been used to explain other aspects of the play, for instance Jessie’s relationship with her daughter and the deadbeat dad.

Act II is like a balloon when it has been punctured and the air is leaking out. Nevertheless this balloon survives mostly through the extraordinary performances of the actors and McNally’s dialogue, which even when obscure is always entertaining.

If McNally’s dream is not perfect, it certainly won’t put you to sleep.

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