Medieval Play is a comedy that misfires on several levels at once. The primary one is that it isn’t very funny, but the other levels say why.
Level #1 and the least important: Its story about armies at war, kingdoms and churches, treads upon ground already claimed by an iconic film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. One could argue that MP&THG was a sendup of Arthurian Legend, while the gifted writer-director Kenneth Lonnergan’s play is an absurdist look at actual medieval history (and set in France and Italy), but the intellectual distinction doesn’t stop the associative reflex. The only way to watch the play without thinking of the film…is never to have seen the film. And the film is a cinematic watershed, at least in the English language. So the odds aren’t great.
Level #2: It lacks a sense of comic proportion. One of its principal and recurring riffs is having its characters—no matter whether they’re literate or what their social status—able to discuss their current socio-political situation in the language of historical analysis, flinging about terms like “agrarian economy” and jokes like, “Admit it, you like three-crop rotation!” The device recalls the bit in MP&THG in which a Dennis the constitutional peasant, feeling repressed by King Arthur, shouts out to witnesses, “Come see the violence inherent in the system!” (see it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dOOTKA0aGI0). Now if you watch or know the bit, you’ll notice that it is indeed a bit. It’s short. The joke about a politically literate, dung-gathering peasant gets played out very quickly and then the film moves on. But Mr. Lonnergan keeps returning to the conceptual dichotomy, seeming not to realize that his individual jokes are in the service of a single umbrella joke, whose biggest strength is shock and surprise. Once shock and surprise is over, the variations, no matter how witty, are only attenuation.
Level #3: When the characters drop literate-speak, they fall into fairly contemporary American-sounding colloquialism that is laced with profanity, which is sometimes directed at the audience. The point here may be that Anglo-Saxon crudeness goes back to the middle ages, but contemporary rhythms don’t, and Anglo-Saxonisms are a root of English, not French. This doesn’t mean a contemporary writer needs to affect archaicism if he’s to evoke centuries past—but you have to avoid clear anachronism. Core to making comedy work is the audience’s belief in it; and Mr. Lonnergan keeps violating verisimilitude.
Level #4: Periodically in the narrated sections, at the cusp of our hearing some truly outrageous bit of history, we are parenthetically assured, “This really happened.” This sort of combines the first levels 2 & 3 into one. Since we already have history-speak, it’s an unnecessary hat on top of a hat; and since it hearkens to the audience’s level of credulity, it shatters the reality in an effort to make us buy into the reality.
There’s some amusing design in sets and costumes and the cast is able enough; and whatever else is true about Mr. Lonnergan’s miscalculation as a writer here, he at least knows how not to over-direct comedy, and—I’m not sure how better to put this—has protected his actors by encouraging a mostly low-key style that lets them perform as if it were all quite funny, without the flop-sweat and effort of trying to beg for a laugh. And in the words of S. J. Perelman, that’s something even if it’s nothing…
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