by Robert Brustein
directed by Francesca Zambello
at the Hasty Pudding Theater
through May 5
ticket information: 547-8300
Which of us can resist that tinge of pride that comes from basking in the glow of one of our Own--that narcissistic gleam which is sparked when our eyes alight, somewhere in the "Real world," on a Harvard name: Marjorie Garber on the Op-Ed page of The Boston Globe, Robert Reich telling all on Oprah, Jill McCorkle's latest novel staring out from B. Dalton's or Neil's "exausted" mug on the cover of Newsweek. So it was with a feeling of excitement that I headed over to the Hasty Pudding Theatre to watch Demons, the new play by my former professor of English 163 (and the artistic director of the A.R.T.), Robert Brustein.
If the marquee was enough to reel me in, the play attempts to court Harvardians constantly with references and inside jokes only we could possibly appreciate: jabs at the Div School, mentions of the crowd at The Border, a brief flash of Johnston Gate, a grad student crossing the stage buried under a pile of barely discernible blue books. Demons goes out of its way to make us feel savvy.
Even without the Harvard jokes, the script is funny--kitschy, but funny. The play is described in the program as "a late-20th-century response to the Elizabethan masterpiece," Doctor Faustus, by Christopher Marlowe. The plot has no surprises: a previously upstanding citizen and scholar sells his soul to the devil in exchange for having his innermost wishes fulfilled and must eventually pay the price for his folly.
What is surprising, is the ease with which the story is transplanted to the 1990's. The Faustus character, Peter Prideau, a Peabody Professor of Christian Morals over at the Divinity School, inadvertently discovers a demon while fiddling with new software called "Cybernectromantics." Desperate to see his deceased wife, Laura, once more, Prideau makes a deal with the demon, nicking his finger with the proffered Swiss army knife and bartering his soul for a meeting with his beloved.
Demons succeeds most impressively, and fails most abysmally, for one reason: the acting. Will LeBow, as the demon Murray (a former comic who sold his soul for the chance to headline in a Catskills hotel), is hysterical. Strutting across the stage with an obnoxious yellow suit and a mouth you wouldn't want to take home to Mother, Murray, "a demon with heart palpitations," is cheesiness at its best. LeBow manages to perfectly capture the air and nature of the typical Kutscher's comic. Brustein's script walks an extremely fine line between the deliciously kitchy and the horribly cliched, resting precariously in the hands of its cast, and requiring a very delicate touch. Where LeBow triumphs, others don't fare quite as well.
Daniel Gerroll, as the uptight Prideau, turns in an adept, if not particularly memorable, performance. Christopher Martin, as the head demon, Alfredo Archangelo Sandiavolo, adequately invokes a devil's personna. Because of this, the first act flies by quite enjoyably.
Act II, however, sinks like a stone. The act depends primarily on Paula Prentiss, as Laura, to keep it on course, and she does not prove up to the challenge. Not only is there absolutely no chemistry between Prentiss and Gerroll, but the two actors virtually ignore each other on stage--Prentiss speaking her lines without so much as a glance in Gerroll's direction. Prentiss preens and gesticulates incessantly, spastically, appearing almost drunk. Her movements seem so out of place, her speech so garbled and disjointed, that we fear she will topple over at any moment.
But if Prentiss's acting pulls us out of the moment, perhaps this is not such a bad thing--as the set and lighting are truly worth taking the time to inspect carefully. Allison Koturbash has created an extraordinary set design, using 8 television screens as her canvas, to do everything from running the Cybernectromantics program, to representing a telephone, to bombarding us with a series of flashing fluorescent images. John Ambrosone's lighting design compliments this perfectly, adding significantly to the stark and futuristic atmosphere.
Demons is not for the faint of heart. Utterly un-PC, and often grating, it makes fun of everyone from devout Christians to budding feminists. While the script is at times offensive and the acting inconsistant, the play is visually stunning, and, for that reason alone may be worth a short two hour venture into Brustein's own Hell.