Any playwright who sets his action in the Middle Ages and populates his stage with chatty, tin-covered fighting men and silly clerics has a battle on his hands, at least with fans of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. (And we are legion.) Kenneth Lonergan charges into the fray in his Medieval Play, under his own direction at Off Broadway’s Signature Theatre, and it’s fair to say that the creator of the fine movies You Can Count on Me and Margaret (and the fine plays This Is Our Youth and Lobby Hero) takes a lot of flesh wounds.
Part mockery, part true history lesson about secular and religious warfare, and a small part Samuel Beckett with helmets, Medieval Play follows Sir Ralph (Josh Hamilton), who has begun to have qualms about the raping and pillaging in his job description, and Sir Alfred (Tate Donovan), who has fewer qualms but is happy enough to chew the fat with his buddy. Those qualms lead to Ralph’s cockeyed quest for redemption; when he and Alfred offer services to the glory of God, they witness the workings of ecclesiastical politics close up and face a series of farce-worthy problems. Real historical figures — including Catherine of Siena (Heather Burns) and Pope Clement VII (John Pankow) — collide with sketch-comedy wenches, wretched peasants, cardboard cut-out sheep, and Death wearing a costume borrowed from Woody Allen — or is it Ingmar Bergman? An elaborate stand-alone banquet scene presided over by a cartoon-quality Fine Lady (Halley Feiffer) is long on thin jokes about crude medieval etiquette and hygiene. An extended stand-alone sex scene (with the game and comely Feiffer again as seductress) offers a bit of nudge-nudge, wink-wink, but has little to do with anything that comes before or after. The actors work hard and admirably. So do the costumes and set.
Despite all the (not really so funny) jokes and the indulgent (over)use of contemporary obscenity, it’s clear Lonergan has something serious he wants to say. At his best, he shows generosity toward flawed characters trying to figure out how to be grown-ups in a bewildering modern world. Here, he uses medieval hypocrisy, crudity, and the whole nasty-brutish-and-short vibe of the times as a mirror on our own contemporary moral dilemmas. At least I think he does: In this distractingly unfocused production, where funny punchlines fall flat because of poor placement and interesting ideas are obscured by buffoon-style stage business, Lonergan the playwright appears to be desperately jousting with Lonergan the director. As a comedy, Medieval Play can’t hold a candle to Monty Python’s Knights Who Say Ni! and as a drama it’s not nearly as heartfelt as This Is Our Youth or You Can Count on Me. Instead, it’s a theatrical crusade that cries out for a new savior director — and a dramaturg, too — to lead a promising but overstuffed script to salvation. C
(Tickets: SignatureTheatre.org or 212-244-7529)