With his latest ambitious effort, "Medieval Play," Kenneth Lonergan has set himself two apparently irreconcilable goals: educating his audience about the Middle Ages and entertaining it as well.
Taking his best shot, as both writer and director, Lonergan gleefully obliterates the line between fact and anachronism, infusing his recreation of historical events with meta-aware, real-life characters, who also curse with the gusto of New York City cab drivers.
This unorthodox approach to the subject matter helps Lonergan to wring a few laughs from quips about feudalism, ecclesiastical politics and the chivalric code -- certainly, not an easy task. But, unfortunately, as the f-bombs pile up, the cleverness of Lonergan’s conceit diminishes and, eventually, he comes off like a rule-breaking high school history teacher who has overestimated his cool factor.
The production has an intentionally amateurish look, with flimsy, storybook-inspired sets (designed by Walt Spangler) that would be the pride of any underfunded community theater. The plot is equally slight, centering on two knights-errant, Sir Ralph (Josh Hamilton) and Sir Alfred (Tate Donovan), whose friendship is tested by the former’s existential crisis.
Both men are Breton mercenaries, wreaking havoc in 14th century France -- sometimes as combatants in the Hundred Years’ War, and sometimes just for fun and profit. Sir Ralph, however, has grown tired of this destructive life; indeed, he is fed up with every aspect of his unenlightened era and yearns for it to end.
But despite his best efforts to at least improve himself, Sir Ralph continually falls short of his new ideals, never becoming the renaissance man he desperately longs to be. As for the blithely insensate Sir Alfred, he is at peace with his times and what they require of him.
The usually serious-minded Lonergan likely would have been more comfortable focusing squarely on Sir Ralph’s internal struggles and his strained relationship with the licentious Sir Alfred. Once in a while, the conflicted writer/director even seems poised to take the play in an entirely sober direction but, ultimately, he remains largely faithful to his comedic intentions, whether we want him to or not.
With damnable resolve, Lonergan pokes fun at medieval behavior and ideas for approximately two-and-a-half hours, which is a huge problem since the play is only funny for about thirty minutes of its bloated run time. In between the laughs, there is a lot of yawn-inducing exposition, mostly delivered by a calculating Catherine of Siena (Heather Burns), who recognizes the practical value of having both a hotline to the Almighty and the stigmata to prove the connection.
In a nutshell, if Lonergan’s St. Catherine were alive a century or so later, she could have tutored Machiavelli in the fine art of political manipulation, which, actually, might be more true than blasphemous.
As the presence of St. Catherine and the Breton mercenaries suggests, Lonergan’s play does not cover the entirety of the Middle Ages. Rather, he is only concerned with a few of its more religiously perverse later decades, when the Catholic Church definitely appeared to be in dire need of a reformation. These tumultuous years encompass the debauched Avignon papacy of Pope Gregory XI (Kevin Geer); the return of papal authority to Rome; the ascension of the reform-minded and torture-loving Pope Urban VI (Anthony Arkin); the election of a rival pope, the mass-murdering of Clement VII (John Pankow) by a group of anti-reform French cardinals who missed their Avignon prostitutes; and the resulting Western Schism that left the Church with two battling successors to St. Peter, that is until the Council of Constance resolved all this lunacy in 1417.
With Sir Ralph and Sir Alfred as our hapless guides, we are supposedly primed for a madcap romp through this period of gross corruption and hypocrisy. But although blessed with a game cast, each of whom assumes multiple roles, Lonergan’s play never becomes the captivating farce it aspires to be, mostly because Lonergan is not a great judge of his own comedic chops.
Occasionally, his actors are able to compensate for this shortcoming, holding on to the audience’s attention against all odds; most notably, C.J. Wilson, as a bumptious knight, and Halley Feiffer, as his piously hot-to-trot wife, redeem what could have been a painfully insipid bedroom scene by mustering their slapstick skills.
But no actor could overcome Lonergan’s most pronounced humor handicap. Curiously, or maybe even sadistically, he seems to think that essentially reading encyclopedia entries to the audience is the height of hilarity, as evidenced by St. Catherine’s smirking acknowledgements of the play’s unrelenting didacticism. The intermission walkouts should convince Lonergan that he took this joke way too far.
"Medieval Play" continues through June 24 at the Signature Theatre, 480 West 42nd Street. For info or tickets, call 212-244-7529 or visit the Signature Theatre’s website.