The ancient Greeks knew that tragedy could be funny, but for the most part, they didn’t see it as laugh-out-loud funny. For them, it was a state occasion. The fate of the hero or heroine had the dignity to represent the destiny of the state as a whole: This was what we could come to if we didn’t live moderately and acknowledge the power of those tricky external forces that the Greeks called the gods. For modern playwrights, living in the era since serious religion died, the hard part has been making the fate of the individual meaningful enough to be taken seriously for a full evening. If the individual’s a king, and the whole nation will crumble with his downfall, that’s tragedy no matter how many jokes are made during its course. But if the individual is only the guy in the next cubicle, and his disaster is precipitated by his own personal circumstances, that’s funny.
So, although the story of Medea, as retold by Euripides, is full of bitter laughs but manifestly tragic, the story of My Deah Hedgepeth, Southern beauty queen turned wifely avenger, is just as manifestly not, even if John Epperson had aimed beyond mere camp laughs in dramatizing it. And Simon Gray’s story of Ben Butley, a drink-sodden English professor on the downslide, is also distinctly non-tragic, though when Butley starts going after his ex-spouse and ex-lover, he can wreak almost as much destruction as Medea. Both My Deah and Butley see themselves as living out tragic roles: My Deah has seizures of classical speech and witch-goddess incantations, while Butley, getting the news of his wife’s divorce action and his lover’s desertion on the same afternoon, praises them for upholding the classical unities.
Ostensibly just a spoof, My Deah is too extended (90 minutes) and follows Euripides too scrupulously to settle for such shallow intentions, even if the characters do crack antique vaudeville wheezes like “You rip-a dese, you pay for dese.” A thorough and inventive collagist, Epperson can twist any stock phrase to his own purpose with Nascar-level speed. Now if he only had some purpose, beyond a scattering of mild laughs, that was worth 90 minutes of our time.
Epperson and his director, Mark Waldrop, find My Deah‘s raison d’être in Nancy Opel, who plays both My Deah and her devoted, demented, gumbo-accented nurse. Insofar as comic meaning can be squeezed out of Epperson’s jocosities, Opel squeezes it, with style. Though her recent Broadway work might lead you to brace yourself for shrillness, here she is ranging from extreme vindictive frenzy to breathy seductiveness and back without putting a scrape on her voice or falsifying an emotional beat. Her performance often seems less of a parody than certain recent “serious” attempts at Medea. That’s the show’s real problem: To spoof material this overworked is superfluous.
Butley seems oddly superfluous, too, and the fault certainly doesn’t lie with Nicholas Martin’s smart, speedy production, or with Nathan Lane’s scrupulous performance at the head of a first-rate cast. Butley is a paradox, an articulate, knowledgeable man who knows his world and ought to function well in it, but somehow just can’t. Despite the ready wit and encyclopedic gift for literary quotation that he can display even after heavy alcohol consumption, he’s apparently abandoned both his love of literature and his desire to teach it, his defection accelerated by the breakup of his marriage, and the collapse of his relationship with the male protégé who began as a student disciple and now shares his faculty office. From what we see, it’s hard to know whether any of Butley’s loves were real. He alienates people so systematically that you wonder how he kept them in his orbit this long, while his literary knowledge serves him mainly as a weapons storehouse for the verbal darts he zings at anyone who drops by. Students, colleagues, ex-wife, ex-lover, ex’s new lover, eager prospective student: To Butley everyone’s a handy target. He’s no tragic hero, he’s a Thersites.
Yet even while wrecking his life, Butley’s presumably meant to be a sort of hero, for whom we’re meant to feel some degree of compassion or empathy. We would hardly put up with a full evening of him just for the sake of the wisecracks; there’s limited fun in watching a man dig his own grave and then fall slowly into it. Alan Bates, who created the role, made Butley a ravaged romantic: Under the ranting and the drink-raddled obnoxiousness, you saw someone who could have been an intellectual contender, and whose ferocious contempt for everyone else was fueled by resentment at his own failure. Lane, nobody’s idea of a romantic hero, wisely doesn’t aim for this failed-Byron image. Instead, subtly, he invents a Butley who was once the life of the party, now bitterly aware that the party has moved on. This makes the play seem smaller, but not because Lane’s concept is less tenable: He simply reveals a shortfall in the script that Bates’s bravura had concealed. Hearing only Butley’s comic vociferations, we realize that we don’t know what he wanted to be, or do, that might have made him meaningful to us. Life was less perplexing when tragedy had kings.