Long before Barack Obama coined the expression “the audacity of hope,” Irish playwright Tom Murphy wrote about “the audacity of despair” in a 1983 play called The Gigli Concert, currently on stage in an intriguing but earthbound production at Soulpepper.
JPW King (Diego Matamoros) is an English “dynamatologist” – a practitioner of a fringe offshoot of psychiatry invented for the play – who one day has an Irish self-made man (Stuart Hughes) walk into his shabby Dublin office seeking unusual treatment. The man has been in a deep depression and wants King to help him come out of it by realizing his goal: To sing like the great Italian tenor Beniamino Gigli.
King, strapped for cash and eager for a challenge, agrees to work with this rich developer, whom he begins to call Beniamino (and which we will too from here on in, for the sake of clarity). The pair’s six days of pseudo-therapy end up being equally life-changing for the doctor, who has, for years, been hung up on a beautiful married woman who has been stringing him on. Or, perhaps, whom he has been hounding.
Murphy’s central idea seems to be that our darkest moments – what Beniamino calls “everything mean and low” – can also be deeply transformative ones when, as the dynamatologists like to say, “anything is possible.” We might seriously consider throwing away a successful career to become a singer, or even throwing away life altogether. When the gloom lifts, and the creative/destructive fantasies disappear, hope – that is, the possibility of essential change – falls away and we are, paradoxically, happier for it.
With its depiction of a con man whose powers have some truth to them, The Gigli Concert seems a less moody companion piece to fellow Irish playwright Brian Friel’s Faith Healer – except instead of an Irish charlatan exiled in Britain, this time the main character is an English fraud out of his element on the Emerald Isle. The connection between the two plays is highlighted by the casting, as Matamoros and Hughes also starred in Soulpepper’s production of Friel’s play four years ago. In both plays, there’s a third female character – here, Mona (Irene Poole), an unfaithful wife who counts King among her many lovers around the city. When she stops by King’s office for assignations on his hide-a-bed couch, he barely pays her any attention; and, while Poole gives a deeply felt performance, Mona never fully holds our curiosity either.
The play suffers from a similar problem; its mood is mysterious but light. With characters telling lies about themselves – and one with a gun in his pocket – we at first seem to be in Pinter territory, but there’s not all that much menace to propel us forward. There’s also an imaginary child straight out of Albee, but that puzzle is solved fairly cleanly. The play grows less fascinating and less tense with every passing scene in the second half. There seems to be a layer missing, either from the play or the production at Soulpepper – perhaps a political allegory that I’m missing, or an irony in the relationship between the Englishman and Irishman that doesn’t translate in Canada.
What might have helped is a firmer hand from actor-turned-director Nancy Palk. Soulpepper audiences have been able to watch her learn the latter craft over the past couple of seasons. (This is still the Canadian way; if you want to be a working stage actor in this country, however, you go through acting school and then endless “conservatories.”)
Palk’s production of The Gigli Concert is the type where a play’s off-kilter nature is acknowledged by a slightly skewed set (designed by Ken MacKenzie) and little else. She mostly lets her actors go at it – which they do with seasoned skill, in the likeable, slightly sentimental style that has become Soulpepper’s signature. Hughes, in particular, is very watchable as a man who gives up on confronting his demons to go back to contently ignoring them.
But after he departs, the play’s magical conclusion featuring King – the type that’s deemed “unstageable” by those who find it hard to escape the straitjacket of realism – is a bit of a dud. The dramatic highs come earlier; the ending leaves you shrugging.
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