Midsummer Arrives Midwinter

The Scottish play: David Greig's Edinburgh award-winner hits 42nd Street

If you chanced upon David Greig’s Midsummer after a hard day’s Fringing, you might think you’d lucked into a gem. It’s clever, winningly performed, and has the kind of lightly suspenseful but ultimately sappy rom-com plot—cut with wacky fantasy interludes and just a whiff of existential rumination—that people generally think of as “life-affirming." (The production, which Greig also directs, arrives at the Clurman this week after winning a Best of Edinburgh Award last August.) But as the main event in a theatrical evening, it’s sort of like having dessert for dinner—too sweet, too fluffy, and too flaky to be satisfying.

One rainy weekend in Edinburgh, two rueful thirtysomething Scots run into each other in a wine bar. Bob (Matthew Pidgeon) is a petty criminal with an underexploited artistic soul (we know this because he’s reading Dostoevsky in the bar). Helena (Cora Bissett), her name perhaps a shout-out to Mr. Shakespeare’s play about hot-season hi-jinks, is a successful lawyer with a nagging family and a knack for picking deadbeat dudes (she’s just been stood up). On the cusp of proper adulthood, they both feel like life is leaving them behind. And so the improbable lovebirds tumble into bed, have funny sex, and resolve not to see each other again for an unconvincing minute—before promptly reuniting. Giddy with midsummer madness, they drink and cavort their way through a large bag of ill-gotten cash belonging to Bob’s criminal boss, finding true love and their better selves during a lost weekend (or something like that). Reader, make no mistake: The hormonal pair finds many quirky, generous, and lovable things to do with that pilfered money! And not to worry, this is also the kind of story where the villain expires promptly once his suspense-enhancing duties are concluded.

Throughout, the duo periodically sings dippy acoustic-y songs about falling in love and/or existential dread. (“Love will break your heart/But sometimes you want it to” goes one refrain). The goal seems to be Once-like tuneful winsomeness—but that was a play about falling in love through music, and this is a play about falling in love through booze and desperation. The alibi for the musical interludes—which are inoffensive but also mostly dramatically superfluous—is that Bob once entertained the modest dream of busking his way across Europe. But whether street singing, one of the world’s more thankless professions, is the right metaphor for rediscovered youthful vim is a very debatable proposition.

Once again? Bissett and Pidgeon
Douglas Robertson
Once again? Bissett and Pidgeon

Greig’s script jumps back and forth in time, combining narration with present-moment enactment, and frequently opens up the frame for sequences pulled from his characters’ rich imaginative lives. Some of these are more amusing than others: Bob’s panel discussion/life referendum with the various aspects of himself about whether “This is it?” is far more enjoyable than the semi-disturbing scene in which he has a conversation with his penis, as represented by a plush Elmo doll, about his desire for a loving monogamous relationship. (For the record: The penis is in favor, and Bob is the one who has had doubts.)

The two actors perform with practiced verve—they know where the laughs are, and mug accordingly—but the production never escapes the cute zone. It’s hard to take this by-the-numbers unlikely-lovers-find-unlikely-love plot seriously as anything but recycled movie tropes. Like that chipper busker you can’t escape on the subway platform, Midsummer sings a song we already know—and not so well that you really want to stick around and hear it again.

 
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