The Gigli Concert
Also see Susan's review of The Retreat from Moscow
The Gigli Concert, now at Washington’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, is a fascinating comic drama about the transference of identity and the transcendence of everyday experience. If that makes it sound uncomfortably highbrow, know that it opens with a toilet flushing offstage and an actor entering in his underwear.
Irish playwright Tom Murphy wrote The Gigli Concert in 1983, and Woolly Mammoth had a major success with the play in 1996. The current production reunites the three actors and the director from the earlier production, now with a total of 40 more years of life and theatrical experience among them.
J.P.W. King (Howard Shalwitz) is an expatriate Englishman living in Dublin in the early 1980s, attempting to make a living as a practitioner of an off-the-wall mental health discipline called Dynamatology. Anne Gibson’s brilliantly seedy set crystallizes King’s frustrated life, from the grimy off-white walls to the books and papers piled aimlessly around the floor.
King gets through the day with the help of a lot of alcohol and a mistress, a comfortable married woman named Mona (Kimberly Schraf), but he doesn’t find his true purpose until a stranger (Mitchell Hébert) knocks on his door. The man, who refuses to give his name, explains that he has a flourishing business and a difficult family life, but he is determined to realize a dream: to sing like Beniamino Gigli, a renowned Italian operatic tenor of the early 20th century. If he can accomplish that, the man believes, he will be able to solve all his problems.
The rest of the play follows how the worn-down King and the other man, identified in the program as Irish Man, attempt to find common ground over six days. The most interesting part of the process, as depicted by Murphy, involves the ways in which these two very different men find overlaps in their characters, symbolized by the way King comes to love the Gigli recordings the Irish Man brings to their sessions.
Director Tom Prewitt demonstrates confidence in his handling of the disparate pieces of this play, in which arias of words often give ways to operatic arias. The pacing is smooth, and the interweaving of the everyday with this heightened reality never seems too jarring.
The fact that the forthright Hébert is a good bit taller and more imposing than Shalwitz, who seems here as if he’s not too comfortable in his own skin, adds to the humor of their interactions. Schraf’s character is more peripheral, but adds an important balance by showing the complications of King’s personal life.
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company