New York City Theater
"Dedication or The Stuff of Dreams"
“Dedication or The Stuff of Dreams,” is Terrence McNally’s funny-sad but diffuse work in which small-town actors want to buy a decrepit theater. Before the evening is through, relationships have been either cemented or shattered, matters of life and death dissected and dreams deferred or realized.
“Dedication” is never dull, never less than accomplished. And it has a superb cast, headed by two of New York’s top performers. Marian Seldes, as Annabelle Willard, fits her role of a flamboyant matriarch like a second skin. Scathing and vitriolic, pitiful and tormented, Annabelle is a monster sacré reduced to a kind of fearful humanity.
Nathan Lane is Lou Nuncle who, as a child, dressed in his mother’s skirt and twirled to imaginary music, all the while dreaming of the theater. The actor’s timing is so impeccable, his feelings so palpable that you’re reminded how fine an actor he can be, how seriously he can dig beneath the surface.
There’s nothing more mesmerizing in the current theater than the scenes where director Michael Morris sits Lane and Seldes down and lets them banter dialogue like the champions they are. Yet the play itself is sprinkled with red herrings and unsure of how to get where it’s going. McNally is off in a lot of directions, an ambivalence that perhaps reflects the confusion that comes of equating the artificial world of the theater with the realities of existence.
The question here is how much should theater, which is filled with pretense and bliss, remove us from life, with its traumas of betrayal, illness and death? The unmistakable feeling is McNally is more interested in the Annabelle-Lou conflict, with much of the rest mere window dressing.
“Dedication” takes place in a deserted playhouse owned, it turns out, by Annabelle, a cancer-ridden, alcoholic millionaire who decries the loss of “goodness, grace, love,” without being able to embody these traits. Lou covets the shabby place as a home for “Captain Lou and Miss Jessie’s Magic Theater for Children of All Ages,” run by him and his partner.
“We’re just so much road kill to the gods,” says Annabelle, before trapping Lou in a Faustian bargain, a highly dramatic confrontation reminiscent of Edward Albee. As for the other characters, Jessie, Lou’s partner, is sweet and loyal while carrying on an affair with Arnold, the British-born technical director who works at the children’s theater. Jessie’s rock star daughter, Ida, just out of rehab, arrives with her intelligent, foul-mouthed boyfriend, Toby. Then there’s Mrs. Willard’s servant, Edward, a tough bloke who cries at soap operas.
McNally is affectionate toward the theater and its toilers, using the occasion to berate what he perceives as the declining craftsmanship of an ancient art form. An old “chariot of the gods” in the form of a cloud, built to haul immortals to the upper reaches of the proscenium, becomes a metaphor for lost grandeur. A wind machine, a guillotine, a feather fan are metaphors for a more bearable time when “harmony and happiness, love and laughter were possible” and audiences literally caught their breaths in surprise.
-- David A. Rosenberg
Aug. 21, 2005