Edgar, a prolific and successful British playwright, knows his way around plays that have a lot to say. His most notable effort is the eight-and-a-half hour The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, performed to great popular acclaim by the Royal Shakespeare Company three decades ago. With Pentecost, however, it seems he had two competing concepts in mind, each of which could have inhabited its own full-length play. When he attempts to bring the two halves together, however, he is like someone who is determined to fit a jigsaw puzzle piece into a place where it simply does not fit.
The stronger half — or at least the half that comes closest to hitting the head/heart combination — is Act I. It opens on a brick wall of an abandoned church in an unnamed Eastern European country not long after the collapse of the Soviet Union. On the wall is displayed a mural extolling the virtues of Soviet idealism. But it is what is underneath that mural that sets the hearts of the lead characters pumping. It is another mural, one that dates back many centuries and which, if its provenance can be authenticated, is an extraordinary find that could have an unparalleled impact on our understanding of the history of Western art.
What is so good about Edgar’s writing is that you do not need to understand anything about art history to appreciate the confluence of art, history, religion, politics, personality clashes, egotism, and greed that come together over the mural, which has been discovered in a place that has served over time as a house of worship for the Orthodox, Catholic, and Islamic faiths; a prison; a storehouse for potatoes; the Museum of Atheism and Progressive People’s Culture; and, on occasion, a place for sex-for-hire assignations.
The first to uncover the potentially priceless treasure is Gabriella Pecs (Tosca Giustini), an art curator who sees in it a chance to elevate her museum’s third-rate collection to world-class status. To this end, she has enlisted the aid of a visiting British art historian, Oliver Davenport (Jonathan Tindle), who is very conscious of his own low status in the pecking order and who is quickly convinced to join the cause. But given what is at stake, the enterprise quickly comes to the attention of the Orthodox Church, represented by Father Bojovic (Lawrence Nathanson); the Catholic Church, represented by Father Karolyi (Christo Grabowski); the local government, represented by a bureaucratic minister (Matt Ball); and a renowned and arrogant American art historian Leo Katz (Alex Draper), who is determined to debunk the mural as a mere imitation of a well-known work by the Italian artist Giotto.
What a rich setup Edgar has provided for this play. Throughout Act I, the efforts of the various characters to stake out their territorial rights is deeply compelling, while the emotional side is served through the budding of a tender relationship between Gabriella and Oliver, played out against Leo’s bullying tactics. (All three actors are first-rate in their respective parts). But at the end of Act I, the play abruptly changes course with the sudden appearance of a group of political asylum-seekers from all over the region, who take the three principal characters hostage.
This change in direction takes us into the realm of the political chaos that ensued following the collapse of the Soviet Union, represented by the many nationalities and the babel of languages spoken by the various parties who make up the refugee group. To Edgar’s credit, this half of the play is also never less than intriguing itself, but it really is little more than a polemic, with all of the new characters serving as types. And despite an effort to tie the two halves together, the story of the mural has been relegated to the role of what film director Alfred Hitchcock would call a “MacGuffin,” a device used to get the plot going but which diminishes in importance as things evolve.
Still and all, the 20-member cast under the direction of Cheryl Faraone imbues their roles with as much depth and individuality as the playwright permits, and — as always — the Potomac Theatre Project has provided an excellent production of a work of provocative ideas. Just so you are warned, there are loud gunshots fired during the play.
Potomac Theatre Project, in association with Middlebury College, presents