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The audience members at The Illusion, the final offering in the Signature Theatre’s Tony Kushner season, remained restive for much of the performance. They coughed, shuffled, rustled, arrived late, and neglected to silence at least two cell phones. And then there was Pridamant, an onstage spectator who disagreed with each scene, loudly proclaiming, “I’m utterly bewildered” and “A man has a right to expect coherence.” This particular man, though, is part of the play, which Kushner adapted from Pierre Corneille’s 17th-century tragicomical romance.
Unable to get word of his estranged son, Pridamant (the affecting David Margulies) journeys to the cave of the magician Alcandre (Lois Smith, garbed like the better class of crazy cat lady). In the course of a single evening, he watches as the enchantress provides him with three separate, desperate visions of his son, who is beset with girl troubles and sword troubles. The names and circumstances alter with every new vision, contributing to his outbursts and confusion.
In Michael Mayer’s charming if rather airy production, Kushner/Corneille conjure up a certain amount of audience confusion, too. Corneille knew he’d written a peculiar script, calling it an “odd monster” and an “extravagant gallantry.” He became famous for breaking the rules of French classical theater with Le Cid, but L’Illusion comique proves even more structurally daring. It also, in the hands of Kushner and Mayer, proves quite long, though quite lovely.
Actually, The Illusion, both the original and contemporary versions, occupies a distinct if small genre of plays exploring the overlapping of theater and life, of appearance and reality. “What in this world is real and not seeming?” asks Alcandre. The play never comes near to answering such great questions, delighting instead in how easily actors, directors, and playwrights like Kushner can invoke new worlds onstage and summon fresh universes in one little room.