Early in The Stendhal Syndrome, Terrence McNally's new play at Primary Stages' beautiful new theater on East 59th Street, one character states, while beholding Michelangelo's David: "Words can only diminish this experience."
Maybe, maybe not. It's true that any great work of art has the capacity to move and affect on levels beyond the easily described; there is value in allowing art to affect you intellectually as well as emotionally. Feelings and the ability to describe those feelings go hand in hand in the appreciation of art, for better or for worse.
The transformative powers of art are familiar ground for McNally, who has tackled the subjects in plays and musicals like The Lisbon Traviata, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Master Class, A Man of No Importance, and even The Full Monty. But he has, perhaps, never before made as his case as baldly as he does here, tackling with his characteristic flair in this evening of two one-act plays reactions to art that can and cannot be expressed.
The struggle for words, spoken aloud or merely thought, is the central conflict of the first play, "Full Frontal Nudity." Bimbi (Isabella Rossellini), a tour guide at Florence's Accademia Gallery, inspires her three American charges (Jennifer Mudge, Michael Countryman, and Yul Vázquez) to share their thoughts about the larger-than-life David, which leads to an exploration of their feelings, memories, and dreams. The second play, "Prelude & Liebestod," finds a conductor (Richard Thomas) trying to lead a performance of Richard Wagner's compositions (from Tristan und Isolde) while being swept away by his own reactions to the passionate music.
In the first piece, McNally successfully manages to put into words feelings that everyone has experienced but are seldom able to articulate; there's a great contrast between the characters' private thoughts and the words they choose to share aloud. That idea plays a role in the second act as well, but it's likely to linger longer in the memory for different reasons. Thomas's ecstatic performance summons powerful images of love and lust, and his Conductor buries all rational or reasonable feelings within the piece of music he believes can only attain its full potential when one gives one's soul over to it completely. Those watching him - his wife (Rossellini) and a secret admirer (Vázquez) in the audience, the concert master (Countryman) in the pit, and the soprano (Mudge) onstage - experience both their emotions and those he shares publicly (the audience is treated to a lengthy monologue about his private amorous thoughts), with the result being something of an emotional symphony itself.
The first act works similarly, but on a smaller scale; the contrast between the two pieces is what makes The Stendhal Syndrome a satisfying full evening of theatre. The show's overall impact might be greater as the performers have a chance to settle into their roles in the first act: Vázquez and Mudge, as the two less-seasoned tourists, were a bit watery at the performance I attended, and Rossellini experienced occasional difficulty with her lines. But she and Countryman, as knowledgeable counterparts to Vázquez and Mudge, did very well in the first act, and everyone was better in the second, their honed performances giving "Prelude and Liebestod" an exciting, epic feel.
Director Leonard Foglia has given the show a spare and efficient staging that successfully balances the tangible and intangible qualities of art. (Quibbles with his work are few, though Countryman's violin playing and Thomas's conducting were not particularly convincing.) Set designer Michael McGarty has crafted a cathedral-like set, with the central stained glass window an ideal place for Elaine J. McCarthy's projections to be displayed. (The David is seen only in these projections; McGarty has provided a pedestal for the statue, but nothing else.) Russell H. Champa's lights are very effective, and David C. Woolard's costumes, particularly for the second act, are elegant and appropriate.
The title for McNally's play derives from the psychosomatic illness that results from an overdose of exquisite art. McNally will likely continue to explore the mysterious power all forms of art have over the human condition, but hopefully exposure to his plays won't have deleterious effects like dizziness, fainting, or confusion; missing too many McNally plays, including The Stendhal Syndrome, would be an unfortunate loss.