So-called "famous names" don't mean much to Young Jean Lee - to her, a person is a person is a person, whether alive 200 years ago or today. We may know Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and Lord Byron as great 19th-century poets, but to Lee, they might as well be struggling writers on the Lower East Side.
By reducing some of the English language's most well-known and respected poetic voices to stereotypically tortured, self-concerned figures, Lee uses her new play The Appeal, which just opened at Soho Rep, to link the English Romantic poets directly to the present day. In many ways, she argues, they weren't much different from the type of Bohemian artists Jonathan Larson immortalized in Rent.
The result is a play only tangentially historical; it's not musty, but hardly historically accurate. Rather, The Appeal often feels like an episode of a teen-angst television show (think Beverly Hills 90210 or The O.C.) gone horribly awry. Lee, who also directed the show, fully embraces the ridiculousness of her premise to make The Appeal blithely engaging. She can't quite sustain the comedy for the show's full running time (just over an hour), but she comes very close.
She centers the piece on Wordsworth (Pete Simpson) and Coleridge (Michael Portnoy), good friends barely able to comprehend each other's artistic vision or methods of expression. They get on each other's nerves and have petty squabbles, but they always make up, not infrequently with drugs or alcohol. Coleridge has some interest in Wordsworth's sister, Dorothy (Maggie Hoffman), though she is also fascinated by the terminally conflicted Byron (James Stanley), and almost succumbs to his charms when he invites all three to his castle in the Alps.
Byron, on the whole, does little more than discuss furniture and wax philosophic and neurotic ("I'm afraid of what it would be like if I had microscopes for eyes," he frets at one point), while Wordsworth and Coleridge attempt to mend their relationship, and Dorothy just tries to fit in. Each character's vacuous nature plays well off the others, and the actors all give into the silliness and seem to have a great time, though Simpson, with a heightened mock-brusque demeanor and most of the play's funniest lines, does stand out.
Though Lee is happy with injecting laughs into The Appeal - and there are many - she's not afraid of examining inspiration or the creative process. Wordsworth and Coleridge attempt to help Dorothy hone her poetic skills, Wordsworth gives an emotional poetry reading after a drunken orgy, and Coleridge and Byron have lengthy monologues in which they confront the pain that propels their own work and writing. If Lee never deeply explores the men's psyches, she takes the opportunity seriously whenever it does occur.
The production itself is spare - Eric Dyer has constructed a basic white room of a set but lit it with great (and subtle care), and Tara Webb's costumes are vaguely suggestive of the period. Such suggestion is really all that's required, as the show wasn't intended to be placed specifically in any one era or geographical location.
That's by design, as the words the characters use, be they intentionally lyric or unintentionally non-descript, transcend time and space in search of a universal way to define artists who attempt to describe and elevate the human experience. This, along with the fragile blend of comedy, drama, and real meaning Lee has provided, ensures that The Appeal is indeed quite appealing.