Fairy tales usually begin "Once upon a time..." and end "And they lived happily ever after." The world premiere of Michael Weller's modern fantasy, "Approaching Moomtaj", having its world premiere at Newton's New Repertory Theatre, begins several months after Sept 11, 2001 in uptown Manhattan, journeys through the imagination of its central character, and ends in not necessarily deserved reconciliation. The company's award-winning director Rick Lombardo guides his first-rate ensemble, with Robert Prescott, a veteran of stage, screen, and television, in the lead.as Walker Dance, an entrepreneur on the ropes, with a bit of Indiana Jones in his soul. Rachel Harker as his wife Kelly manages to create a having-it-all career woman who might be the villain of the piece, but since this is a "fairytale for grownups" achieves an appropriate level of sympathy. Harker also has a great deal of fun playing Queen Aunt Noor, a central figure in Walker's software-induced fantasy. The creator of that mythical software is his half-brother Wylie, another unique characterization from one of the best actor's in town, Thomas Derrah, a surviving member of the ART. Nominally a taxi-driver, Wylie's visiting from the left coast where the brothers were born, and has overstayed his welcome hiding out from something--Kelly presumes a drug deal gone bad. Derrah appears in the Moomtaj sequences as Sufi Sid, a smooth talking street vender with all his charcateristic energy.
Weller first came to notice with "Moonchildren" which made it to Broadway in 1972, and has written for movies --"Hair", Milos Forman's "Ragtime"--, television, plus a few adequately received plays. This new script, still in development after two years of writing, has a strong multimedia component, blending the storytelling styles of various genres. All its threads haven't quite come together, but the weaving is generally fascinating, if occasionally frustrating. The echoes of the real world in the fantasy sequences--and vice versa-- aren't always that illuminating. The triteness of some of the adventure elements, all of which come from Walker's mind somehow suggest the limits of his imagination. The biographical elements concerning his deprived childhood living in a trailer with a substance abusing hippie mother don't especially illuminate his adult personality. And while Natalie Brown, from the Hartford Stage Company, last seen at the New Rep in "The Real Thing" does a creditable job as Faith Cherubini, his therapist , her part is a bit of a cliche and is too easily dismissed as the beginning of the climax. As Fatima, the palace servant, she's even less relevant. This role needs to be rethought, perhaps employing a more interesting therapy technique.
The other woman in Walker's life is more interesting, if somewhat of a cliche as well. But fairytales are full of them. Lordan Napoli, seen last season with John Kuntz in "The Kringle Kult", is eye-catching as always. In the real world, she plays Madeline aka Maddy, a free-spirited young cellist Walkers been having a fling with, who's planning to move from Chicago to be closer to him. The scenes between them have a too good to be true theatrical charm which contrasts nicely with the mundane scenes with his wife. Napoli's role as Mawan, the palace musician in Moomtaj is more problematic, though quite amusing, and much more conniving. Exactly how her two alter-egos relate in Walker's mind is a bit of a mystery, but then infatuation often is. And it's good to see Napoli back onstage in Boston, however briefly.
Two other characters have intriguing moments. Kevin Topka, a Liberian body builder just getting into theatre has considerably stage presence to go with his action figure physique. His mindless snarl as a Bahkt--whatever that is--is a pointed running gag, topped only by his dejected exit when disarmed mentally by a really inventive curse. Walker's son, Josh, is played by Jacob Brandt , who's been seen at Turtle Lane among other local appearances. He's a natural kid with some priceless lines, ie. to his parents fighting, "So you hate each other. What's for supper?" In Moom he's the presumably deaf and blind Prince, who must achieve knowledge to save the land. Here the fantasy gets especially murky, having to do with Walker's flashbacks to his own horrible childhood. But young Jacob plays the Prince with the same air of juvenile authority as before.
This production would not be anywhere as effective without the first-rate technical support which audiences have come to expect at the New Rep. Norton awardee Janie E. Howland's set, realized by Wooden Kiwi, is a marvel of simplicity with a transparent back wall in perspective. The unit furniture is clear plexiglas. The major scenic element is a complex series of images created by Dorian Des Lauriers on a large back projection screen, plus two large monitors above either side of the stage. These are complemented by original music from IRNE winner Haddon Kime woven into a sound design assisted by the director. Costumes are once again the work of IRNE winner Frances Nelson McSherry. Daniel Meeker's light designing and special effects manages to facilitate the numerous scenes without clashing with the projections, partially by adding a ring of "birdies" around the acting area as footlights.
Just what future this script has is open to debate. Will it be lost in the rising tide of artistic responses to 9/11, more in the live theatre than anywhere else? Should Weller try to find a more expressive title? Could the role of the therapist be replaced by some less predictable element in his life, or does this situation merely need a better setup? Is the menace involving Wylie needless melodrama? But time and development may tell. Plays can always be rewritten. Or wrought.
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