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The Illusion

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

The Illusion
David Margulies in the foreground, Henry Stram and Lois Smith in the background.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

You may be forgiven for not knowing that Tony Kushner has written nonpolitical plays. But should you pass up the rare opportunity to see one — in New York, in a first-rate production, with major actors — forget any notion of a pardon. So don’t risk it: Get to Peter Norton Space, for the Signature Theatre Company’s final entry in its season devoted to Kushner: his 1988 play The Illusion. A true oddity, this show, given here a solid mounting by Michael Mayer, provides a fascinating and engaging glimpse into the furthest reaches of talent that an established master of the theatre has rarely deigned to reveal.

Not that every molecule may be attributed solely to Kushner. He “freely adapted” his work from Pierre Corneille’s 1636 comedy L’Illusion Comique, following the original’s essential structure, character layout, and even its trick ending with reasonable fidelity. With a firm reliance on stock personas and poetry, it is undoubtedly linked to the culture in which Corneille lived and wrote. Yet it’s also unquestionably a modern piece, examining the details and boundaries of our own perceptions (those both inborn and gifted to us by others) in ways that brand it a part of Kushner’s — and 20th-century America’s — peculiar dramatic tradition.

Chief among these is its focus on families: those we need (and don’t), those we want (and don’t), and those that are thrust at us. Pridamant of Avignon (David Margulies) has journeyed to a shadowy cave to seek out the sorcerer Alcandre (Lois Smith). Pridamant wants to learn the fate of his son, whom he callously chased away years ago and whose absence now wracks him with regret. Alcandre is happy to oblige him (for the right payment, that is), but proves during the course of the visions she conjures that fantasy may not be entirely trustworthy — even if it is in many cases truer than the reality that surrounds it.

The Illusion
Finn Wittrock and Amanda Quaid.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Pridamant sees his son, now a grown and handsome young man (Finn Wittrock), embroiled in a devilish situation. He’s fallen in love with a rich girl (Amanda Quaid), whom class and society have positioned forever out of his reach. He’s both loved in turn by her poor servant (Merritt Wever), and seen as the interloping romantic rival of the rich woman’s “more deserving” paramour (Sean Dugan). Promises are made, duels are fought, and prices are paid, with a tragic end apparently preordained for anyone who would dare seek rise beyond his birth. Or maybe not — as Pridamant views the action, the names and conflicts keep changing slightly as the story unfurls. Is the situation more complex than he at first realized, or is it merely that in losing his son he also lost the ability to interpret what everything about him means?

That question is answered for him (and for us) in time, but not until an impressive tangle of personalities and plot have been unraveled, and the relationships of everyone — including Alcandre’s deaf-mute servant, Amanuensis (Henry Stram), in the “outside” world, and the cobweb-headed Matamore (Peter Bartlett) within the fantasy — have been thoroughly explored. Kushner does it all with a light touch that stands in stunning contrast to the conflagrative speechifying deployed so freely in the previous Signature outings, Angels in America and The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures. But his approach yields no less fiery results and, in fact, the contemplative understatement often comes across as even more compelling than some of his other plays’ more open provocations.

Mayer has broken no new ground in attempting to communicate all this, but has effectively marshaled the full forces of a semi-deconstructive take on French drama to his aid. With the help of set designer Christine Jones, costume designer Susan Hilferty, and lighting designer Kevin Adams, he’s created a world that is at once colorful dream and discordant nightmare, keeping you as off your guard as Pridamant is forever off his. You really do feel as though you’re traveling into the cosmic crossroads of the intellectual and emotional, where anything can (and probably will) happen.

Wittrock, Wever, Quaid, and Dugan are roundly excellent in populating the more astral part of that universe, and approach their portrayals with a buoyant seriousness that lets them maintain consistency even when all the trappings around them change. (Kushner has fashioned three illusions for them to romp through, one more than Corneille did.) Stram is similarly outstanding, with deep undertones at once playful and tragic, as both the put-upon Amenuensis and the rich girl’s stolid father. But Bartlett, Margulies, and Smith don’t round out the periphery particularly well — they’re all giving performances they’ve given before in other shows, set in other time periods, and that disrupts, well, the illusion of a unique, wonderful, and unpredictable existence on which the action so strongly trades.

Smith, however, redeems herself during a climactic monologue in which Alcandre explains that love, despite its incorporeality, is far more tangible than anything you can hold in your hand. “The art of illusion is the art of love, and the art of love is the blood-red heart of the world,” Alcandre instructs, the shrugging yet authoritative tones of an all-seeing grandmother flooding her voice. “At times I think there’s nothing else.” By the end of The Illusion, Kushner will have you thinking exactly the same thing.


The Illusion
Through July 17
Signature Theatre Company's Peter Norton Space, 555 West 42nd Street between 10th & 11th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: signaturetheatre.org