Sunday, July 10, 2016

37. Review: SIMON SAYS (seen July 7, 2016)

“A Whole Lot of Shaking Going On”
Stars range from 5-1.

There’s a whole lot of shaking going on in Mat Schaffer’s Simon Says, a wannabe thriller about spiritual channeling now at Off Broadway’s Lynn Redgrave Theater after premiering last year in Boston. The shaking comes whenever a young man, James (Anthony J. Goes), goes into a trance to channel an entity named Simon, who, in one manifestation or another, male or female, has lived through multiple existences.


Brian Murray. Photo: Maria Baranova.
Simon Says could almost as easily have been called Seth Speaks, as its subject matter closely resembles the ideas and circumstances surrounding the communications of Seth, a Simon-like entity, to psychic Jane Roberts in the 60s and 70s. Roberts and her husband, Robert Butts, recorded and set down his words in a substantial series of books (one being titled Seth Speaks) that made a major contribution to the New Age movement. Schaffer, who holds a degree from Tufts in Interdisciplinary Studies in Mysticism, acknowledges the influence of both Roberts and another major clairvoyant, Edgar Cayce. (Full disclosure: my wife was totally into Roberts and Cayce back in the day and their books line our shelves.)
Brian Murray, Anthony G. Goes. Photo: Maria Baranova.
In this 80-minute play (don't believe the usher if she tells you it's 60), James is the companion of the much older Professor Williston (Brian Murray), who has partnered with him in an effort to profit from James’s talent while also video recording his sessions for purposes of a book he’s writing about the eternal life of the soul. One of the play’s throughlines is the conflict between the aspirations of the morally culpable, has-been professor and the protégé whose life he tries to control.
Vanessa Britting. Photo: Maria Baranova.
The setting for this potentially interesting but dramatically dull play is Williston’s shabby digs (which look more put together than designed by Janie Howland), with books piled in mountains (not the best way to find one when you need it) and exotic religious artifacts (like prayer beads blessed by the Dalai Lama). Here, Williston and James—a regular, baseball-playing guy who resents his gift (the result of a childhood head injury) because it prevents him from living a normal life—are visited by an attractive young woman named Annie (Vanessa Britting).
Anthony J. Goes, Vanessa Britting, Brian Murray. Photo: Maria Baranova.
Annie wants James to contact her beloved late husband, Jake, who died in a car crash two years earlier, and whose memory continues to haunt her. After initially resisting, he agrees, and thus begins a sequence of convulsive trances during which James becomes Simon, reverts to James, then shifts back to Simon, and so on, ad infinitum.  Lights relentlessly flash on and off (lighting designer John R. Malinowski has been busy), there are some odd mechanical noises (thanks to sound designer Brian Doser), and James’s body jerks and lurches like someone being tased. When Simon speaks it’s with a phony British accent; when he first moves, it’s by jumping and rolling about with simian dexterity. What this has to do with the transmigration of souls is a secret; you might even wonder if Simon was originally an ape.

To set up an appropriate dialectic, Annie, despite her obsession with reaching Jake, is a skeptic concerning things like spiritualism, mediums, channeling, and the like. In fact, she teaches chemistry and physics and declares, “I deal with facts, evidence.” This gives Simon the opportunity to lecture and advise on various matters related to otherworldly matters—reincarnation, coincidence, the nature of existence, accidents, predestination vs. free will, and so on—all in bookish dialogue with the emotional impact of a wet noodle. His blather eventually reveals a dramatic secret about the mutual relationship of the dramatis personae to a 2,000-year-old event that only a New Ageist (not me) could love.

Director Myriam Cyr hasn’t done much to channel this material from page to stage; the pacing is flat and the acting—despite several outbursts—lacks tension. Brian Murray still possesses the intelligence and charm that has made him a three-time Tony nominee, but he's going on 79 and, if I may use a baseball metaphor, has lost some bat speed. As James, Anthony J. Goes lacks the vocal and emotional versatility to take advantage of a role with great opportunities for theatrical fireworks. He might also consider whether there aren’t other ways of expressing inner turmoil than rubbing the heels of his hands against his eyes. Vanessa Britting’s Annie may tell us she’s a doubter but nothing in her performance (partly because of the writing) makes us believe it.

Time, I think, to pull Seth Speaks down from the shelf and see what all the fuss was about.

OTHER VIEWPOINTS:

Lynn Redgrave Theater
45 Bleecker Street, NYC
Through July 30

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