The Good Book of Pedantry and Wonder
The play is set in Oxford in the 1880s. James Murray is working on the job of a lifetimethe job of several lifetimes, actuallycompiling the Oxford English Dictionary. He has taken over the task from earlier editors, and, given his advanced age and rate of progress, someone else will likely take over for him. But here and now, everything is the dictionary. It's all about definitions, word origins (from many different languages), and thousands of bits of paper bearing quotations. It's about meeting impossible deadlines, getting sponsorship for the project, and trying to keep the underpaid help from cracking under the pressure.
But it isn't James Murray's play. The play is actually about James's daughter, Jane. As age takes its toll on her father, Jane picks up the slack, not only reminding him where he left his spectacles, his pen, and whatever he happened to be working on, but also bringing her own not insubstantial intellect to the work itself. Jane has been keeping James, and the dictionary project, together for years. And the play starts moving when Jane's brother, Paul, returns from an eight-year absence.
As played by Melanie Lora, Jane is crisp, precise, and all business. The only real enjoyment she takes is making jokes at the expense ofand over the head ofmen she considers her inferior ... which pretty much means every man she isn't related to. For Jane is insanely intelligent and well educated. But, as a woman in the 1880s, she has few opportunitiesand, as a daughter holding her father together, she couldn't take of advantage of them anyway.
The problem with the first act of the play, though, is that we don't see much of Jane's frustration; we just see her haughtiness. And because Jane seems like nothing more than a cold workaholic who won't even take the time to return a morning greeting to the clerk who shares her workspace, it's hard to really care what happens to her. (And since we know the OED eventually gets finished, there's no dramatic tension on that front either.)
Things turn around in the second act, which opens with a flashback scene where we see who Jane was before she ended up locked in the oppressive garden shed full of papers and books. (Full marksindeed, bonus pointsto set and lighting designer Brian Sidney Bembridge for making the walls overloaded with paper slips alternately awe-inspiring or soul-crushing, as the circumstances require.) But this scene with younger Jane is exactly what the play neededa chance to see her laugh and sparkle, and to understand precisely what she gave up to be her father's right hand.
There are two other excellent scenes in the play, both in the second act. There is a terrific interaction between Paul, who spent eight years seeing the world, and his father, who saw none of the world but dedicated his life to perfecting how to describe it. And Time Winters, who very nearly walks away with the play in the comic role of Smythic, the never "good morning"ed clerk, has a delightful scene alone, drunkenly reading some of those many slips of paper. Smythic's scene isn't good just because it's funny (although it certainly is), it's good because it's one of the few reminders of what's at stake here: the mastery of every word in the English language.
There are strands of other plotlines, but none fully developed. There's a woman whose sole purpose appears to be pointing out that James has overlooked certain off-color words (with which she is well familiar), and a suggestion that Jane isn't the only Murray sibling feeling constrained by the mores of the 1880s. But what is perhaps most frustrating about the play is that these characters, who are all so good with words, are often too scared to actually speak to each other, and leave their important communications to notes which are left for each other, but never read aloud. It may ring true that the Murrays are not a family who easily speak about difficult matters, but unread notes simply lack theatricality.
It's a smart play. At times, it's a funny play. And in very brief moments, it's a moving play. But like the dictionary at the center of the play, it isn't finished yet.
The Theatre @ Boston Court and Circle X Theatre Co. present The Good Book of Pedantry and Wonder through August 29, 2010, at the Theatre @ Boston Court. For tickets and information visit www.bostoncourt.com. Written by Moby Pomerance. Directed by John Langs. Scenic & Lighting Design Brian Sidney Bembridge. Original Music & Sound Design Bruno Louchouarn. Costume Design Dianne K. Graebner. Properties Design Chuck Olsen. Dialect Coach Tracy Winters. Assistant Director Augustus Heagerty. Production Stage Manager Katherine Haan. Casting Director Michael Donovan, CSA. Key Art Christopher Komuro.