DramaNew YorkOff-BroadwayReview

Simon Says – Lynn Redgrave Theater at The Culture Project, New York

Writer: Mat Schaffer

Director: Myriam Cyr

Reviewer: Alexis Boursier

Mat Schaffer’s Simon Sayshas an eclectic pedigree. It is billed as the return of Broadway veteran Brian Murray, and it presents itself as an earnest exploration of the paranormal. Ambitiously, this takes on many different mantles. It’s a “dramatized séance,” an exploration of life and death, and a murder mystery, yet it utterly fails at successfullybeing any of those things.

First time playwright Mat Schaffer, who holds a degree in Interdisciplinary Studies in Mysticism from Tufts University, has taken it upon himself to educate the audienceabout the nature of truth, love, and science. In the the proud Socratic tradition, he does this with a series of lecturesthat, for some peculiar reason, aregiven througha series of characters in a staged drama. Schafferhas clearly read a play at some point, and understands several components of theater.

Brian Murray is Professor Williston, dismissed from his teaching position for anundisclosed reason. Anthony Goes portrays James, a younger man whomthe Professor has been working with for some time. After recovering from a childhood injury, James developsthe ability to contact a figure called Simon, who has himself been reincarnated over the millennia as numerous Simons.

At first it appears that Schaffer isexploring faith and the supernatural, through a sort of PT Barnum-style performance as the centerpiece, but the writing doesnot allowthat to happen. The next hour is spent watching a series of expositional monologues from the entity known as Simon, which if acted by a cast, and staged as a production of their own, might have been interesting. However in this context they read simply as read. They are confusing at best and intentionally obtuse at worst. Onecannot help but wonder if the audience isthe unwitting participant in a Kaufmanesque experiment about the very nature of theater, but by the end you realize, no such luck.

In order to say somethingredeeming, it’s bestto examine the cast and their individual performances. The top billed Murray is wonderful, playing a man recovering from a recent heart attack. He is commanding, fragile, and a little desperate but never maudlin. However he is not much more than a spectator for the last hour of the play. Murray gives usamazing and nuanced moments, that are all the more impressive given the material with which he is dealing. Goes, as James/Simon, doessomething truly impressive. Subtle and occasionally daring, he isfascinating in his portrayal of a man with this peculiar burden, as well as the non-human being speakingthrough him. Interestingmovement and vocal choices are almost problematic with such embarrassing dialogue, and Goes throwshimself into a role that is frankly beneath theperformance of it. Vanessa Britting is also in the play, as Annie, a grieving widow, and a true skeptic for aboutten minutes. She attempts to be our avatar in this strange world, but always seems like someone who is unsure where she put her keys.

Technically speaking, director Myriam Cyrand scenic designer Janie Howland have created a space and a pacing that make the best of a bad situation. The minimalist academic lair lends itself perfectlytothe material, and in the moments of silence between the dialogue onefeels as though onecan trulysettle into this space and these characters. The movement and lighting are so perfect and harmonious, the audience wantsthe material to sing, which sadly it never does, even for a minute.

Simon Saysgathers an impressive amount of talent into one concentrated space, butthe scriptis simply not worthy of all that talent. It is a constantlyimpressive execution of utterly nonsensical material, which is so certain of its importance that it states it regularly, and unambiguously. This reviewer hasnever been more certain of any artistic endeavor’s unworthiness for public presentation. The lone hope is that the creative minds attempting to salvage this piece are quickly snapped up by more worthy projects.

Runs until 30 July 2016

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