'Medieval Play' is looong on history
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Two knights are sitting on a rock. If that sounds like the beginning of a joke, well, it does to me, too. There will be people, clearly, plenty of people, not amused by "Medieval Play," the way-too-long, far-too-silly but -- at least to me -- lovably funny and smart 14th century buddy-odyssey and meta-historical cartoon by Kenneth Lonergan.
About now, admirers of his quietly marvelous modern plays ("This Is Our Youth," "The Waverly Gallery," the underrated "The Starry Messenger") and movies ("You Can Count on Me") must doubt we are talking about the same Lonergan. Even his legendarily troubled "Margaret," the 2005 Manhattan movie not released until last year because of editing and legal disputes, gave no inkling that, inside this exquisitely sensitive writer, lurks a social satirist with "Spamalot" in his soul.
"Medieval Play," which runs more than 21/2 hours, contains 60 irresistible minutes and maybe another really adorable half-hour. Lonergan, who also directs, knows exactly how to get his eight terrific actors to fall on their swords for him and his comic vision of sophisticated childishness. If only he had such discernment about cutting this wildly uneven work.
But back to our knights. Sir Ralph (Lonergan muse/specialist Josh Hamilton) is having a crisis of conscience about being an unchivalrous mercenary who plunders villages. Sir Alfred (Tate Donovan), the more fun-loving half of the team, doesn't quite get his buddy's new spasm of empathy. Promised purification of all sins, the guys join a crusade to bring the pope back to Rome from the "French Babylon" of Avignon. Things don't quite work out.
There is much smiting, ecclesiastical libido, creaking armor and gross bodily functions in this adventure that takes us past the cardboard cutout castles and clouds of Walt Spangler's sweet set. Meanwhile, Catherine of Siena (Heather Burns) narrates with deliciously snide grace. John Pankow, Anthony Arkin, Halley Feiffer, C.J. Wilson and Kevin Geer gleefully juggle a ridiculous assortment of cardinals, noblemen and harlots.
Lonergan obviously knows his era, and his characters rattle off dazzling sociological observations they can't possibly know. There is a wonderful banquet scene in which the guests try to behave -- that is, vomit, spit, etc. -- according to a fashionable new book of modern etiquette. But when one of our knights asks when the Hundred Years War will finally be over, it is hard not to ask the same of this night.
WHAT "The Medieval Play"
WHERE Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St.
INFO $25; 212-244-7529; signaturetheatre.org
BOTTOM LINE An hour too long, but funny and smart