After seeing Medieval Play (Signature Theatre), I can’t help picturing playwright Kenneth Lonergan as a young, idealistic, 14th-century monk, burning to illuminate a chronicle of his struggle to lead a Christian life in a time of upheaval. But his eagerness is arrested by an older, more cynically worldly monk, whom I also picture as Lonergan, somehow. The elder warns his junior that all such struggles are futile and all chronicles of them merely travesties.
In shock, the young monk hurtles forward in time and writes this play, drowning its initial seriousness of purpose in a torrent of misguided jokes, all meant to show the moral superiority of 21st-century hindsight to the falsity and hypocrisy of 14th-century Christian Europe—with an occasional clubfooted attempt to link the latter to the falsity and hypocrisy of business, religion, and government, circa 2012. Directing the sorry result himself, the transplanted monk makes the sin fall doubly onto his own head. Thus does disaster strike when idealistic youth hearkens to its inner hipster voice. Woe unto our theater that no Abbott lived to guide him on a wiser path.
Interminable like all 14th-century chronicles, Medieval Play tells of a decidedly errant knight-errant, Sir Ralph (Josh Hamilton), who deserts the band of mercenaries with whom he has been plundering the countryside, in favor of a more virtuous life, exactly when the era’s corrupt, politicized Papacy is transiting from Avignon back to Rome. Everything Sir Ralph touches turns to gore and mishap, while the Papal move toward Rome and reform leads only to bloody schism. It reduces even St. Catherine of Siena (Heather Burns), watching over it all, to bitchery and profanity.
Many have ridiculed the Middle Ages’ shortsightedness, but none, till Lonergan, was foolhardy enough to choose the era as a topic and then condescend to it for nearly three hours. Thinkers like Huizinga, Burckhardt, and William Morris have suggested that medieval life might have contained values unwisely jettisoned by modern civilization, but the puerile 21st century, which insists on viewing all past epochs as putrid reflections of its own paltriness, won’t stand for any such intellectual effort. Painfully, Lonergan’s laborious jape wastes some delightful cartoon scenery, by Walt Spangler, plus a cast that could, given less flimsy material, match its delights. Burns, Kevin Geer, and John Pankow bring smiles even as their lines thud, while Hamilton has ripened into a strong, centered actor who deserves far better than this presliced glibness.