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Review: A Perfectly Wonderful Evening

By Nicholas Korn · May 28th, 2009 · Fringe
The title of this production comes from one of Groucho Marx’s daringly fabulous insults — “I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it.” This 80-minute riff on an actual dinner engagement between the cigar-wielding Hollywood humorist and the modernist poet, T.S. Eliot, deserves credit for its promising concept and daunting display of cultural erudition. But it falls short of its intriguing premise.

The script, by Christopher Carr, relies on the irony that two of the greatest minds of the 20th century meet with little to say to one another and pass the time exchanging awkward pleasantries, bemoaning their geriatric illnesses and occasionally break forth with vague comments on Shakespeare’s greatness and Dante’s universality. The missed opportunity here looms large.

Bringing both Marx and Eliot in their declining years to the conversational level of two codgers in the park, despite their fervent but frustrated admiration for one another, exposes the difficulty that Carr has set for himself — how to create a show-length conversation that is profound and witty — and worthy of the minds of his chosen personalities.

The performers here do their very best to keep the material airborne, especially Tom Manning as Eliot, the inward man of the mind whose thoughts are torn among religious commitment, literary status and the vivacity that moments of laughter offer. Patrick Downey’s Groucho looks every bit of the man seen in the old recordings of You Bet Your Life, but his version feels more defeated and his delivery borrows as much from Woody Allen as it does from as the manic man with the mustache.

Jim Stump, one of the most reliable actors on the local scene, gives his send-up of eminent literary critic Harold Bloom a good deal of gusto, but even an audience of English lit majors would have wanted a little more than the survey course-style rendition of Bloom’s literary touchstones and mantras, a flaw that lies more with the play than the player. The slide show of Stump-as-Bloom accepting academic awards does add a Fringe-perfect dose of hilarity.

Emma Robertson assumes the challenging task of managing all the women’s roles, including the wives of Marx and Eliot. While her performances don’t differentiate the characters completely, she adds an element of grace that's welcome — and she is usually given the only lines that contain a dramatic context.

Poetry and comedy are in many ways similar. They rely on connecting unrelated ideas and objects to create surprise. Director Chris Wesselman spends most of his stage time by keeping the characters separate, emotionally and spatially. As a result, the punch lines and emotional moments come close — but alas, no cigar.

Performed at Media Bridges through June 3. See performance dates and preview here.



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