At Loeb Experimental Theatre through Dec. 17
John Wolfson has constructed himself a fantasy, or more precisely, a cosmology, a huge private joke of a universe which he has thrown rather diffidently onto the Loeb experimental stage and asked an audience to enjoy. That is what strikes one first about Dr. Plantagenet, the sheer nerve of the play. Shaw's Back to Methuselah seems by contrast extraordinarily limited in scope.
Wolfson's is an untidy universe wearily administered by a hierarchy of bureaucratic deities who survey the passing millennia with an admixture of cynicism and occasional sadistic delight. One of the functionaries is Plantagenet himself, who has programmed (in his own image) a self-operating machine which is called fate and which actually runs the earth. The "tertiary spiritual leader" nominally responsible for the earth, the official locally designated "God," appears here as Nathan Weltschmertz, an amiable, blundering fellow whose ambition to realize a personal utopia the machine continually frustrates.
So frustrated, Weltschmertz becomes "sick"; he assists two lost souls to break through the barrier of earth into the void. The souls, Hector and Gnatalia (in a vague way Adam and Eve figures), pollute the atmosphere of the void; so much so that Rex Regis, a vice-President, must call upon Plantagenet to psychoanalyze Nathan, and persuade Him that He can in fact control His planet in His own way. And that the Doctor does, with what an earlier school of reviewing would call many riotous consequences.
Now cosmologies have, by definition, their own sets of laws, and if one is to play the game of those who invent them on their own terms, one must be certain of exactly what these laws are. Here lies Wolfson's most irritating weakness, for he leaves his audience wondering about an enormous number of embarrassing technical matters. Why, after all, should lost souls produce a kind of "spiritual fallout"? Why should Nathan's metaphysics be so simple-minded that He cannot grasp the mechanics of good and evil on His earth? A lack of precision, a lack simply of detail, reduces much of Dr. Plantagenet to situation comedy in a wild setting. Its fascination is undeniable, but it derives far more from one's desire to learn more about a weirdly built cosmos than from any inherent appeal in a rash of conventionally unconventional ideas.
John Kulli's direction of the Lowell House production has shrewdly encouraged the play's most endearing virtues--its consistently high level of wit and the fundamental ingenuity of a plot that covers the historical epoch of man twice. Tom Segall as Nathan is a ludicrously, wonderfully pathetic God; Art Roberts (Rex Regis) is indistinguishable from a thousand harried executives. Plantagenet himself (Jere Whiting) seems determined to squeeze the juice from his lines; perpetually overcome by the cleverness of the dialogue he forgets that his significance lies not in his pose but in his machine. The grey hireling of the bureaucracy, the only real example of Wolfson's bitterness, is Erg, and regrettably Richard Black makes little of Erg. Like so many of the author's hesitating attempts at seriousness, this too is swept away.
There are still, of course, the two most confusing characters of all: Hector (Harry Low Simons) and Gnatalia (Carolyn Mercer) who drift across the stage with cryptic sneers apparently wondering why Wolfson put them there. Yet what they must say they say with dignity. And David Gilfillan has designed a magnificently intricate machine.
It would be unfair to complain that Wolfson's temerity has not to some extent paid off. For his cosmology has Shaw's charm, which is simply that one can sit and listen to such talk for hours. Although Harvard lost the playwright's talents to Yale in 1960, the machine that looks after such matters has done this community an odd and pleasant favor by transferring the production to Cambridge.