Theatre has always been a prime province for spirits, benevolent and malevolent alike. But whether they're accepted or feared once they arrive, they're seldom invited in outright - they tend to make their homes in favored or neglected spaces when it's least expected.
So it's little surprise that Dedication or The Stuff of Dreams, Terrence McNally's scintillating and inspiring new play at Primary Stages, begins with the theater being plunged into total darkness. True, it's only a few moments before human voices pierce the black and reassure us of our own status as living beings. But even then, one thing is obvious: The lack of a ghost light to protect the theater from wayward specters means that they - and we - are not alone.
But when the lights burst on a few minutes later, we instantly become aware that this is no run-of-the-mill ghost story. The people bumbling their way around the stage, inspecting decades-old paraphernalia, are simple, down-to-earth types, not glamorous show-biz folk. The dreams of Lou (Nathan Lane) and Jessie (Alison Fraser) are as modest as their appearance: They're proprietors of a local children's company who have weaseled their way into a magnificent old theater that's fallen into disuse, in hopes they can acquire it and give new life to their own struggling enterprise. (The wonderfully evocative, old-time set is by Narelle Sissons.)
Both Jessie and Lou are firm believers in the transformational powers of theatre, but the theater's owner, Annabelle Willard (Marian Seldes), is not. She's dying - quite rapidly, it turns out - from esophageal cancer, and has no time for such foolishness. But as she's something of a humanitarian and believes that Lou as well is not long for the world (Jessie lied to her about Lou suffering from the same cancer), she's willing to part with the theater, provided Lou will end her pain for her when the time ultimately comes.
McNally, though, refuses to allow the play to become an elegiacal exploration of pain and loss. Instead - as he's done in a number of his previous works - he trumpets the rejuvenative powers of art. Theatre can't solve all life's problems, so there are limits to exactly how this story can play out. But along the way, everyone learns the pricelessness of the gifts people have to give theatre and what theatre can give them in return.
These gifts are manifested here primarily as love, which McNally celebrates in many forms: For the theater; between longtime partners Lou and Jessie; between Jessie's daughter Ida (Miriam Shor), a pop star just out of rehab, and her boyfriend Toby (Darren Pettie), for each other and for Jessie, with whom they want to make amends; that of Jessie and Lou's technical director Arnold (Michael Countryman) for both of them; and even that of Annabelle's devoted, demented driver (R.E. Rodgers) for his employer.
Michael Morris's direction smoothly blends these story elements into one convincing, satisfying story. If the production can't always maintain the alternately frantic, expectant, and nervous energy the play continuously generates, it's never the fault of the uniformly strong cast, which finds any number of delightful eccentricities in the succession of "everyday" people who inhabit the stage. Fraser, equally sensual and maternal, is especially strong in this regard. Seldes, reigning queen of sardonic one-liners, is doing some of her steeliest, most uncompromising work of recent years here; she restrains herself and works more within the play's established borders than her own familiar persona.
So does Lane, a long-established McNally interpreter, if to a lesser degree. Performing without a hint of his usual musical flamboyance, he at times seems underpowered, as if he lodged himself in the ground while trying to bring himself down to Earth. Lou's more sentimental moments don't come as easily, but when Lou expounds on theatre's ability to touch minds and change lives, Lane delivers the words with a passion that suggests these aren't merely lines, but holy scriptures.
In a way they are. McNally explains in a program note that this play was originally intended to rechristen the Biltmore Theatre when it resumed regular operations a few years ago; the power of the theatre and the art of performance, to both McNally and Lou, is absolute. If McNally has written plays that more directly address that idea (Master Class), more cleverly depict events of near-tragic consequence (The Lisbon Traviata), or better present the dangers and benefits of love (Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune), he's never written one that synthesizes these elements so well.
It makes sense, then, that this play is as much about installing new ghosts as exorcising those of the past. We need them, much as we need the theatre, to oversee, assist, and yes, torment us from time to time to keep us real, to keep us honest. As Annabelle says at one point, "Truth is the greatest thing we can give each other, and we so seldom do." Dedication or The Stuff of Dreams and its playwright offer such truth in copious amounts.
Primary Stages 21st Season