nytheatre.com review by David Fuller
February 25, 2006
Give me a good script and good actors any day and I won’t care that there are only eight lighting instruments. This is the case with Ailanthus Theatre Company’s revival of Sympathetic Magic by Lanford Wilson. Forget about the obvious low budget, this cast will enthrall you in the story—you will care about the characters and learn a thing or two along the way.
Wilson’s themes are monumental, no less than the significance of the Universe, known and unknown. Against that awesome background, are we, this quintessence of dust, really important, or are we insignificant? In the end I think Wilson is telling us that viewed macroscopically, we, the little things, do matter. It may be a paradox, but what we are and what we do does matter. The universe can’t get along without us: we matter in a world of infinite matter and energy.
Like the cosmos, revolving around itself in an infinity of revolving galaxies, the play revolves around astrophysicist Ian “Andy” Anderson, played by Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper, and his live-in longtime girlfriend, Barbara, a successful sculptor, played by Stephanie Chavara. During a several-days' glimpse into their lives, she gets an unwanted pregnancy and he gets an astronomical discovery. Both events are huge and change lives, with the discovery of the latter and the confrontation with the former leading to major upheaval. It’s the juxtaposition of the two and the realization of the importance of the “little” human problem in the face of the “giant” physics discovery that leads to universal truth. (Pun intended.)
Helping admirably along the way: Barbara's half-brother, Don (Joby Earle), a gay Episcopal priest who is contemplating celibacy; Pauly (Bryan Rucker), Don's ex-lover who is the church's choirmaster and has AIDS; Mickey (Corey Pierno), Andy’s colleague who has just been dumped by his girlfriend and is on the make; Carl (Peter Levine), Ian's university department head who is a keen politician in the world of science; Sue (Mary Hershkowitz), an erstwhile law student who is also on the make and who is secretary to Liz;and Liz (Deborah Harris), Don and Barbara’s famous anthropologist mother, who is coping with dying, writing a book, and giving advice to her two children.
Like a universe of heavenly bodies, Wilson has crafted orbits of intertwining humanity. Though the scenes jump around, the settings are basically Andy’s college lecture hall, Andy and Barbara’s living space, Don’s church, and the observatory where Andy and Mickey make their discovery, with a bar, a restaurant and the beach thrown in. It is no small task to make this cinematic style work and the company does it marvelously. Despite the eight lights and the bare essentials for a set, it all works. Sound designer Jason Weiner provides excellent backgrounds to help with locales, set designer Mallory Larson cleverly maximizes the space, Shana Solomon makes effective use of the lights, and director Sean Dillon keeps it all flowing well. The actors are all well-cast and each does a great job of fleshing out his or her character. Dillon has elicited an honest natural style from the company that helps us really invest in the characters. Of course, Wilson deserves a great deal of credit. His ear for dialogue is just right.
In anthropology, Liz tells us, "sympathetic magic" is the name given to the rituals human beings enact in order to influence events, such as rain dances or fertility rites. In this play, sympathetic magic is a metaphor for the things we humans do on a daily basis to get by, get on, and affect Life. The energy of our lives matters to the universe.
After seeing this production I did some Internet research and found that the play won the 1997 Obie Award for best play in a production commissioned by Second Stage Theatre. I also saw that the initial reviews were mixed, with some outright pans. Typical to other famous playwrights who have written world-renowned plays, I think this play suffered from comparisons to other Wilson works. Having no preconceptions, I just sat in the theatre at St. Ann’s Parish in Brooklyn Heights and happily absorbed it all. You will not regret seeing this production. You will laugh, perhaps cry, and certainly learn a few things about the universe and about humanity, not necessarily in that order.