Twice-Told Tales

Pericles, Prince of—no, sorry, old habits die hard. Let me recommence. Adam, Prince of Gildoray, having been abandoned in infancy on a nearly inaccessible island, was rescued from his lonely exile by a remarkably futile crew sent out to conquer all the unwanted parts of the world by the bankrupt King of Cyrillia. Unfortunately, Adam and his rescuers were captured by pirates, who . . . I suspect I'd better stop here. Reading or listening to Keith Bunin's The World Over is far more fun than trying to summarize its narrative, an inventively prolonged set of new twists on the meandering strings of adventures found in the premodern novel. The taste for such journeying tales has never really gone away—think of Barth and Pynchon—but it has been dampened by the bleakness of modern life, while a lot of its energy has leached into the TV and movie series that are its technological equivalent: Add gadgets, omit philosophy, and it's not far from Don Quixoteto Star Trek.

Bunin's taste, however, is for the old-style fabulous journey, almost unmediated by modern awareness; only slight hints here and there tell you that he might be thinking about today's world. The first of three very good things about his play is the archaic pleasure it takes in the spirit of let's-pretend, an impulse that our oh-so-aware theater has almost completely stifled. Even our playgrounds, where it's easy for me to imagine Bunin's largely young cast, barely encourage play: How long has it been since any kid said, "I'll be the castaway prince and you be pirate captain"? And yet the miniaturized pre-adults of our time have the same innate right to pre-technological pretendings that children have always had.

The second good thing about Bunin's script is that he spins his twisting tale in language that's accessible without being downgraded. No one would call this high poetry, of any sort, but where it does strike a poetic chord, it strikes one simply, falling naturally on the ear. Anyone who's dealt with the grand-scale poetic drama of the past, or tried to disentangle the text of a late Shakespeare romance, knows how rare that is. I could wish for more juice in Bunin's diction but am extremely happy that he's let clarity come first, eschewing dressy archaism. Even more pleasing to me is his third virtue—his willingness to try something so different from his earlier plays, which, though they touched on larger matters, were tight-knit, small-group psychological studies, basically centered on love triangles of the kind at the core of any standard-make play. Living up to its title, The World Overis far more inclusive: An unusually vicious love triangle may give birth to the tale, but before we reach its tempestuous resolution, two generations later, kingdoms have risen and crumbled, wars have come and gone, impossible feats have been achieved, nature has proven itself both miraculous and brutal, and uncertainty has been celebrated as the central fact of human life.

Kevin Isola as the Gryphon of Dvolnek in The World Over: a wing and a player
photo: Joan Marcus
Kevin Isola as the Gryphon of Dvolnek in The World Over: a wing and a player

Details

The World Over
By Keith Bunin
Playwrights Horizons/Duke
Broadway and 42nd Street
212-239-6200

Happy Days
By Samuel Beckett
Cherry Lane Theatre
38 Commerce Street
212-239-6200

The Goat
By Edward Albee
Golden Theatre
Broadway and 45th Street
212-239-6200

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Potentially, this is all exhilarating. The expansive form, playfulness, and unconstrained speech of Bunin's work ought to have the same refreshing effect as a sea breeze. That they don't comes from three major flaws that counterbalance Bunin's three virtues. The first two, which go naturally with his literary personality, are simply the defects of those virtues, and would be easily conquerable if not for the third. First, Bunin's love for this old-style storytelling includes a kind of dogged antiquarianism. His tale almost never spins free to convey a sense of our own differently complicated world; instead it rolls from one ancient trope to the next, and his cunning variants can't keep the tropes from sounding familiar. Pericles, Candide, Rasselas, Sinbad —more than one traveler has told us bits of this story. Then, with the familiar tour stops comes an odd reluctance to examine them in depth. Apart from the white-winged Gryphon of Dvolnek, a creature as epigrammatic as it is malevolent, few of the beings Adam encounters have much that's meaningful to say. Such pauses for philosophic refreshment were the reason behind the old narratives' discursiveness. It's fine for Bunin to rewrite Don Quixote—ask any Borges fan—but why omit the point of the enterprise?

Maybe, however, the fault lies elsewhere. Kevin Isola's performance as the aforesaid Gryphon is practically the only first-rate piece of acting all evening long. Nearly everything else in Tim Vasen's production is a hideous, screaming mess, with its young actors—some, like Isola and Matthew Maher, already proven valuable—dashing about randomly, either in the emptiest of stock postures or proffering campy comment on the characters even before they speak. Vasen's staging makes gestures toward simplicity, building its scenes out of ladders and sheets, but simultaneously kills the effect by larding every tech-heavy minute with sound and light, climaxed by the completely pointless entrance of a real carriage. I longed for Paul Sills, or someone who knows about storytelling, to sweep away all the junk. Apart from Isola, James Urbaniak generally speaks his lines with dignified clarity, and I wouldn't mind seeing the others under non-Vasenized circumstances. I even pity Vasen the nightmarish task of trying to get a performance, in the lead role, out of Justin Kirk, who's apparently contending for the title of New York's most self-involved actor; he mutters the entire part like an embarrassed backslider at a 12-step meeting, desperate to be somewhere else.

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