By Alix Cohen
Attention Gorey fans (and those of you who have always been curious), rush to The Sheen Center to catch this gem of a piece illuminating the life of the iconoclastic author/illustrator in his own words. Playwright Travis Russ has combed through journals, interviews and letters creating an entertaining portrait of the creator of such classic, droll, macabre books as The Hapless Child, The Curious Sofa, and The Vinegar Works: Three Volumes of Moral Instruction, not to mention Tony Award winning costumes for Broadway’s Dracula and the animated opening to PBS’s Mystery!
As sympathetically played by Andrew Dawson (the elder Gorey in white beard and cardigan), Aiden Sank (middle aged Gorey, a burgeoning balletomane), and Phil Gillen (young Gorey in his student days), all superb, the piece takes us backwards and forwards in time with cast often sharing the stage and interacting. All of them participate in concocting the The Doubtful Guest. When one waxes sentimental, the others look on with affection. Memories are corrected and embellished. That they resemble the subject and one another is a plus.
With enthusiastic backing by New York’s iconic Gotham Books, Gorey evolved from staff illustrator at Doubleday, to prolific author (some volumes wordless), publishing under pseudonyms that included Ogdred Weary, Dogear Wryde, and E. G. Deadworry.
Early friendship with writer Frank O’Hara and a long, meaningful relationship with George Balanchine are characterized. Gorey attended the choreographer’s ballets over and over, including his apparent favorite, a dance based on an old Pan Am commercial (no kidding) and 176 consecutive performances of The Nutcracker. Tearfully describing ballerina Allegra Kent’s last performance, he quietly wails, “Oh, oh…oh, oh, oh, this, this is what love is.”
Before moving permanently to his Cape Cod (second) home upon Balanchine’s death, one would often see Gorey around town in his enormous raccoon coat and perennial sneakers.
Description of the artist’s Massachusetts refuge is accompanied by projections and film of the actual house and enhanced by a set that features metal shelves overstuffed with evocative memorabilia the audience is invited to peruse before curtain. The entire back wall is plastered with xeroxes of papers found when the author died, everything from sketches to rejection letters-The New Yorker suggested he create images of a “less eccentric nature.” (Design-John Narun & Travis Russ) Excellent projections (John Narun) also include an as-we-watch drawing of the doubtful guest, often thought to be Gorey’s self portrait. One player has a scene with the animated character.
The only false parentheses in this play are an unidentified radio interview and a dramatized one with Dick Cavett which is so abrasive and out of character for the journalist/host, as to be patently unbelievable.
Found!: 500 programs from New York City Ballet, many with personal notes from Balanchine, 73 broken doorknobs, 93 VHS tapes of The Golden Girls, a large postcard collection of dead babies, boxes of small toys with which Gorey played during writer’s block, handmade puppets, thousands of books, hundreds of 45 rpm records and albums (some of which we hear).
Edward St. John Gorey (1925 -2000) hoped not to “disappear…I’d like to be read.” After he passed, a swarm of volunteers descended on his home to go through papers. Inside his refrigerator, one discovered a note. It read: I forbid anyone to rummage through my things… take a match to them. Fat chance.
A grand outing.
Photos by Jenny Anderson
Gorey (The Secret Lives of Edward Gorey)
Written and Directed by Travis Russ
Sheen Center (Black Box) 18 Bleecker Street
Through January 14, 2017