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Pentecost

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Forget the United Nations, a common language, or improved international relations. The thing most likely to bring disparate peoples together is a painting. Not just any painting, mind you, but one with links to as many countries and artistic styles as possible, one capable of providing the missing link between medieval and modern thought. If you have such a painting in your basement, start prepping for global harmony.

If not, you - like the rest of us - will have to settle for David Edgar's Pentecost. The Barrow Group is presenting the New York premiere of the play, which premiered in London in 1994 and posits that world peace might be only a fresco away. And, Edgar does make a convincing case for the way the power of art, and the study of its history, can bring us all together - sometimes we really do have more in common than it seems at first glance.

Unfortunately, this production - which has been directed by The Barrow Group's co-artistic director Seth Barrish - lacks the tightness and polish necessary to sell the play as a major endeavor on the level of, say, Tom Stoppard, whose work Pentecost frequently resembles. Markas Henry has designed a jaw-dropping set that converts The Barrow Group's new 99-seat theater into an abandoned church in an unnamed Eastern European country, complete with pews and intricate stonework. Nothing else makes as profound an impression, a problem given the play's dense, wordy nature.

If you don't absolutely need a degree in art to understand what's going on, it probably wouldn't hurt: Most of the first act focuses on the attempts of Eastern European art curator Gabriella Pecs (Oksana Lada) and British art historian Oliver Davenport (Marc Aden Gray) to deduce the authenticity of a recently discovered fresco adorning the wall of the church, while being continually opposed by American art historian Leo Katz (Stephen Singer), who disapproves of any and all restoration or transportation efforts with regard to the painting.

Edgar touches on his greater concern in earnest at the end of the first act, when the church is invaded by a group of refugees who take Gabriella, Oliver, and Leo hostage; exploring how the prisoners and their captors relate to each other and what their trials might mean for the world is the playwright's true goal, and if Oliver and Gabriella manage to uncover the truth about the painting along the way, so much the better. It's a significant feather in Edgar's cap that he ends the play with so few unanswered questions, and makes his points about art history so clearly and concisely. (If you don't know who Giotto was before you see the play, you'll certainly know after.)

Edgar's achievement, however, would be more significant if Barrish had more comfortably interpreted his work. Ponderous pacing from nearly every performer makes the first act extremely slow going; when the functional cast size doubles for the second act - with most of the new characters speaking hardly any English - it becomes almost unbearable. A storytelling session in the second act, connected to the main plot only in the most basic of thematic terms ("see how people who can't understand each other can still communicate"), utterly grinds the show to a halt.

A great amount of loose acting from the performers doesn't help - Gray is solid as Davenport and Lada has her moments. But everyone else seems overly distracted, unable to concentrate on what they're doing; Singer, in particular, mars his fine performance by giving the impression he innately knows neither his lines nor his blocking. While a number of other performers behave similarly, even the more sure-footed actors don't turn in work of any notable distinction. Only Moe Schell's costumes - incorporating religious, military, and business wear - allow you to distinguish individual characters; the refugees, for example, are undistinguished to the point of anonymity.

This does the audience few favors; Barrish's trouble focusing on anyone for more than a few seconds does fewer still. It's often difficult to tell who's saying what or why, and this subverts a play about fostering communication between people of all different backgrounds. The dissolution of the Soviet Union created peace and problems for all Pentecost's characters, but one suspects its primary impact wasn't to give two dozen Eastern Europeans the chance to congregate in a nameless church as though it were a modern Tower of Babel.

Most of the power of Edgar's writing is thus obscured, similar to the painting itself, which spends a considerable portion of the play only barely visible under six or seven centuries of accumulated grime. Pentecost might well be a powerful play, but who can say for certain? As with the refugees Barrish has directed to chatter simultaneously in as many different languages as possible, it's just too difficult to discern what is truly being said.

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The Barrow Group
Pentecost
Through April 25
Running Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes with one 15-minute intermission
The Barrow Group Theatre, 312 West 36th Street on the 3rd Floor
Schedule and Tickets: 212.868.4444