By Eric J. Grimm
Stage veteran Brian Murray is proof positive that great actors cannot be sunk by bad material. In the New York premiere of Mat Schaffer’s supernatural drama Simon Says, Murray’s cracked yet elegant voice goes a long way toward fleshing out his cliched medium character even as he remains in a sitting position throughout much of the show. Myriam Cyr’s production boasts an air of clean professionalism to complement Murray’s dignified performance style but Schaffer’s play is an uninspired and mawkish exploration of mysticism that never thrills the way that witnessing a live seance should.
Schaffer’s one-act is stocked with basic paranormal story characters who are given just enough complexity to keep the proceedings from being a total bore. Murray’s Professor Williston is an aging medium who’s terrible with money but intent on healing the world through a connection to the past and the afterlife. His reluctant partner in crime, James (Anthony J. Goes), has the gift of channeling the dead but longs for a normal life. Visitor Annie (Vanessa Britting) is a skeptical science teacher whose aunt convinces her to participate in a seance in order to confront a recent trauma.
All three performers are tasked with making the events of the story completely believable, which is made even more difficult by Schaffer’s script’s assurances early on that Williston and James are the real deal. With no push and pull of the audience’s skepticism, there simply is no conflict to play. Murray settles into the character and story with ease, naturally rattling off annoyingly abundant expository dialogue. Goes often remarkably manipulates his body to physically transition between James and others from the world beyond but struggles with Schaffer’s wordy and uninteresting speeches in the show’s middle section. Britting brings great passion to her grieving character; she admirably buys into Annie’s transition from skeptic to believer and works effectively at Murray’s level.
The technical crew shows great commitment to Schaffer’s script in spite of its myriad flaws. Janie E. Howland’s parlor set looks convincingly lived-in with the professor’s books sprouting from from the ground and ceiling from end to end. Director Myriam Cyr makes good use of the space, encouraging controlled movements in a chaotic and claustrophobic atmosphere. She arranges for some attractive stage pictures enhanced by John R. Malinowski’s dramatic light design, though the frequent lighting shifts are often distracting. The collective talents of the cast and crew would be better utilized in a more suspenseful and less eye-rollingly sentimental channeling of the spirits.
Simon Says is playing at Lynn Redgrave Theater (45 Bleecker St.) through July 30th. For more information and tickets, visit http://simonsaystheplay.weebly.com/.
Photos: Maria Baranova