That Terrence McNally loves the theater, there’s no doubt. Where other playwrights of his generation have let themselves be engulfed by Hollywood’s vast maw, churning out screenplays and TV scripts, McNally has largely stayed in the theater, churning out plays and books for musicals. The difference is, McNally’s churn is a freelance operation, beholden to nobody else’s demands, free from the weekly quota of pages and the sponsor-approved storyboards that shackle TV writers. Like or dislike his plays, they’re the ones he chose to write. And McNally is not merely a commercial churner. Lips Together, Teeth Apart; Love! Valour! Compassion !; and Corpus Christi are not the products of a playwright allergic to risk.
Now McNally has written a play about how much he loves the theater, which reveals a brand-new, if ironic, reason for loving him: His love for the theater is so intense that he’s incapable of expressing it coherently, or even allowing the characters who embody that love to convey it through any but the most factitious of dramatic gestures. If it weren’t self-evident, in every second or third speech, that Dedication or The Stuff of Dreams is about a love for the theater that goes beyond all reason, you wouldn’t have the faintest idea what McNally meant it to be about. It has three plots, none of which makes any particular sense or gets resolved in any believable fashion. Its central image is its setting, a disused and crumbling old theater that seems to have an infinite number of entrances, exits, and storage spaces, containing what implausibly appears to be five centuries’ worth of discarded props, costumes, and set pieces.
This unlikely old theater survives in a small upstate town, where it’s eyed covetously by Lou Nuncle (Nathan Lane) and Jessie (Alison Fraser) who operate a pathetically underfunded children’s theater at a nearby strip mall. Lou and Jessie are hapless losers, refugees from the Broadway rat race, but visions of greatness dance in their heads. Lou is crazy for theater—any and every kind of theater. And despite the apathy that has crept over their relationship during decades of scrambling to keep their shoestring kiddie shows alive, when Lou starts ranting about theater, Jessie’s in love with Lou. Otherwise, she loves acting and Arnold Chalk (Michael Countryman), their theater’s overworked technical director, who loves theatrical lore and Jessie in roughly equal measure. Arnold is one of McNally’s grosser improbabilities. A stagestruck t.d., a Brit socialist who loves America, a divorced man who’s ostensibly raising two kids and sustaining a full-time day job while devoting all his energy to Jessie and the children’s theater, he’s more a convenient bundle of traits than a character. That Countryman makes him even mildly believable is no small miracle.
Enter, from opposite sides of the aesthetic spectrum, good and evil angels. Ida (Miriam Shor), Jessie’s daughter from a youthful marriage, is a rock star on the verge of superstardom. Just out of rehab, she arrives trailing a need to make amends to her mother, plus a hunky roadie (Darren Pettie), an apparently subliterate boor who duly turns out, like a younger Arnold, a sensitive soul nearly as devoted to Shakespeare as to Ida. If the owner of the shuttered theater would come to terms, Ida would gladly buy it for Jessie and Lou. But wealthy Mrs. Annabelle Willard (Marian Seldes) seems to have no patience with amends, or sensitivity. Tart-tongued, eccentric, and resolutely mean-spirited about everything, she professes to despise theater, most of all children’s theater. When Ida asks her to name a reasonable price, Mrs. Willard demands $2 billion; when Ida protests, the price goes up to $3 billion.
Mrs. Willard’s loathing for theater, though, is as much a pose as her alleged negativity. The play’s most theatrical character, at heart she’s just a stock stage miser, whose exceptionally blunt line of wisecracks conceals the inevitable heart of gold. One of the first things she tells Lou is, “I like a man who discourses with passion,” after which we know she’s going to give him the theater; the only question is on what terms.
The terms have to do with death, a running subtheme that McNally seems bafflingly unable to integrate with either his characters’ desires or their passion for theatrics. From the first scene’s implausibly open trapdoor to the prop guillotine at the end that improbably turns out not to be a prop, the script dwells on death, in tricksy, melodramatic ways that suggest an ungainly merger of Light Up the Sky and Death Trap. Sex, marriage, and a string of family secrets that are no secrets get tossed into the peculiarly viscous mixture as well. Pivotal events happen with no seeming motivation, till the characters’ patent unlikelihood starts to discredit their constantly reiterated love for theater: They’re hardly real enough to know what it is.
Michael Morris’s production moves the clashing improbabilities around with a kind of slapdash efficiency, and his skillful cast does everything it can to keep the contradictions and false trails from bothering your mind. Lane, playing tenderly, makes hapless Lou’s faith in his art seem real, while Seldes, behaving with discretion that befits a goddess, never seems to gloat over the fact that her role contains all of the play’s best malicious gag lines, as well as the lion’s share of its pathos.