NE Review: 'Approaching Moomtaj' Is Psychological Warfare
A new play by Michael Weller
Presented by New Repertory Theatre, Newton, Mass.
Directed by Rick Lombardo
Scenic Design by Janie E. Howland
Costume Design by Frances Nelson McSherry
Lighting Design by Daniel Meeker
Original Music by Haddon Kime
Multimedia Design by Dorian Des Lauriers
Violence Design by Robert Walsh
Sound Design by Haddon Kime & Rick Lombardo
Production Stage Manager, Cheryl D. Olszowka
Cast (in order of appearance):
Walker Dance/Sir William Powers: Robert Prescott
Kelly Dance/Queen Aunt Noor: Rachel Harker
A Bakht: Kevin Topka
Faith Cherubini/Fatma: Natalie Brown
Madeline/Mawan: Lordan Napoli
Josh Dance/Boy: Jacob Brandt
Wylie Dance/Sufi Sid: Thomas Derrah
Performances: Now through October 17
Box Office: 617-332-1646 or www.newrep.org
The mind of Walker Dance, the central character in Michael Weller's new play Approaching Moomtaj, is as twisted as the wreckage of the Twin Towers after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. This conservative Everyman's precariously balanced and well-ordered life is literally blown apart after he witnesses the collapse of The World Trade Center from the roof of his nearby office building.
First a multi-million-dollar business deal turns to ash for Walker just weeks after confidence in America's economic future is shattered. Then his family life is turned inside out when he engages in an affair with a quirky and spirited musician. The return of his unconventional and apparently half-baked half-brother adds to the mayhem by triggering a cataclysm of painful, frightening, and unstoppable self-examination and change. Finally, in an unsanctioned invasion of his brother's not-totally-debugged interactive computer game, Walker stumbles into Moomtaj, a quasi-Middle Eastern fantasy land whose characters and activities strangely reflect yet mystically distort his own post-9/11 paranoid delusions.
If the script sounds convoluted, it is. But at times it is also compelling. This new play by the author of Moonchildren, Loose Ends and Spoils of War mixes incomprehensible tragedy with the trivial acts of day-to-day life in an attempt to draw parallels between the real people who flew planes into buildings and the real people who suffered terribly at their hands.
As Weller's mouthpiece, Walker tries to make sense of his own life and the world around him while also trying desperately to maintain the status quo. His conflicting motivations send him headlong into therapy where his rather odd but amusing psychiatrist Faith (played with tongue firmly planted in cheek by Natalie Brown) prods him to use his post-traumatic stress reaction to 9/11 to explore the buried demons that are suddenly emerging with a vengeance.
The real "therapy" for Walker, though, comes from his engagement in the world of Moomtaj. His domineering wife Kelly becomes the "royal pain" Queen Aunt Noor. His brother Wylie is transformed into the wise fool Sufi Sid. Madeline, his mistress, takes on the role of the court musician and wench-confidante Mawan. And his son Josh is the mysterious Boy prince whose childhood tragedy oddly mirrors Walker's own. In learning the rules of the game in this computer-generated wonderland, Walker begins to play out his relationships in both his fantasy world and real life. He slowly achieves increasing levels of mastery until finally he becomes Sir William Powers, King of Moomtaj and king of his own private domain.
Boston's New Repertory Theatre makes a game attempt at bringing Weller's cerebrally challenging material to life. Thomas Derrah in particular as the unrelenting spiritual guru of a brother uses a mix of incisive comedy and understated philosophical musings to ultimately free Walker from his perpetual angst. He turns playwright Weller's platitudes into heartfelt convictions and brings crystal clarity to the script whenever he is on stage. Robert Prescott as Walker, on the other hand, never seems to find his character's own voice. During Walker's counseling sessions and in conversations with his wife, Prescott seems to be giving the playwright's speeches rather than engaging in the very intimate process of discovering and revealing personal truths. Rachel Harker as Kelly also seems to have trouble humanizing her shrewish wife. At one point Derrah as Wylie describes Walker and Kelly as being crazy in love, like the trailer trash who throw knives at each other. Yet, we never feel the passion that Wylie suggests. We witness the psychological warfare they use to victimize each other, but we don't ever see the emotional sparks that make us want to see them stay together.
We do see chemistry between Prescott and Lordan Napoli as Madeline. This is due, in part, to Weller's characterization of their relationship. It is the classic insecure older man's rejuvenating mid-life affair with a younger, zestier woman. It is also due, however, to Napoli's sprightly performance. She brightens Walker's life and Prescott's delivery by focusing only on the here and now, not on the tumult going on around them. She is comic and tender, sexy and unselfconscious. She invites both Walker and Prescott to relax and live in the moment.
Approaching Moomtaj has a lot going for it maybe too much, in fact. Multiple and blatant metaphors for political and personal terrorism, repetitive shifts between the real and delusional worlds, Oedipal issues that would give Freud a psychosomatic tic, and extensive plot and character parallels all do work to engage the audience in an intriguing intellectual exercise. What is essentially missing, though, is heart.
The central power of one man's struggle to find meaning in his life and shed the baggage that has haunted him since childhood is lost in rhetoric and plot devices. While it is certainly suitable for the events of 9/11 to serve as a catalyst for Walker's own personal psychological crisis, repeated references to the tragedy and its aftermath become tiresome and preachy. The visits to Moomtaj also become tedious. While real computer games are characterized by non-stop action, the New Rep's interpretation of Wylie's "interactive spiritual software" strangely lacks animation. Director Rick Lombardo attempts to bring the audience inside the computer á là The Matrix by rotating fantasy and techno-illustrations on video monitors and a projection screen backdrop. This attempt ultimately fails, however, because the actors with the exception of Derrah are too tentative in their efforts to create bigger-than-life caricatures.
It will be very interesting to see if Michael Weller reworks his script now that he has had the opportunity to experience it in full production. In Approaching Moomtaj he has crafted a potentially riveting play whose strengths lie in its twisted humor and imaginative exploration of the definition of courage in the face of terror. If he can manage to replace the too frequent displays of oratory with dialog that is more personal and natural, he'll have an intensely moving piece of theater that uplifts rather than confuses.