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A Perfect Ganesh

nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
August 28, 2008

A pilgrimage to India is the journey of A Perfect Ganesh, Terrence McNally's 1994 Pulitzer Prize nominee, now presented by the WorkShop Theater Company and AKIZ Productions. Making the trip are Margaret Civil and Katharine Brynne, two Connecticut housewives in less-than-happy marriages, both of whom are still dealing with the tragedy of a lost first-born son in tragically violent, head-bashed-in incidents.

Katharine's son was killed in a gay bashing incident and she still hasn't gotten over it. Margaret's son was run over by a car when he was four and she hasn't told a soul, not even her other children. Katherine is hoping that the journey will be a cathartic experience; she wasn't accepting of her son's homosexuality and has since felt his ghost hanging over her shoulders.

This is interspersed with the story of Ganesha, the Indian deity with the head of an elephant, told by an omnipotent narrator in elephant mask (which is taken off so he can act as a supporting player.) The story of Ganesha relates to the pains of Margaret and Katharine, told in an especially powerful vignette in the second act.

McNally certainly has a way with words and captures the essence of these women as if he's known them his entire life. Yet, despite the Pulitzer nomination, I don't think Ganesh is the best play in his canon. The play is overwrought and overlong; most of the scenes in the second act end in such a way that you feel they can be a satisfying closer to the play, yet it just keeps going. Part of this is due to the slow pacing of director Peter Sylvester; some is due to McNally; the rest is due to the very calculated, "acted," performances of the four-person cast.

The ensemble is credible enough; there are requisite tears from Ellen Barry's Katharine, Charlotte Hampden is appropriately cold as Margaret. Gary Mahmoud is strong as Ganesha, et al., even if his accents in different characters sound the same, and C.K. Allen provides solid backup in a number of roles. Yet none of them seems to be acting from the heart, and that's where the emotional quality of McNally's work is lost.

Aaron P. Mastin's set, adorned with statues of Ganesha, blends well with the cool-colored lighting of Duane Pagano. Cynthia D. Johnson's costumes are appropriately realistic, even the Ganesha mask.

A Perfect Ganesh, is certainly a bit of McNally's response to the AIDS crisis. Among the many vignettes in the play, Katharine makes friends with her hotel room neighbor, a gay man who, along with his partner, is dying of AIDS. She's friendlier with, and more accepting of, these fellows than she was with her own child.

Perhaps that theme sounds familiar. It bears a striking resemblance to another AIDS-related work, Tony Kushner's Angels in America. Ganesh, I discovered in my research, had its original production (courtesy of the Manhattan Theatre Club) in the same year that both parts of Angels were playing in repertory.

The structures of the plays are not similar, nor are the plots. A number of the themes, however, are indeed shared: the ideas of dealing with AIDS in the 20th Century; the ideas of familial acceptance. McNally's Katherine can be seen as a version of Kushner's Hannah Pitt. Both women are forced, throughout the courses of their respective plays, to come to terms with their homosexual children (although Hannah Pitt's son is alive.) Hannah Pitt also becomes friendly with AIDS-stricken Prior Walter, more accepting of his lifestyle at the end than she is of her own son's.

In its entirety, Angels in America, runs almost seven hours. This production of A Perfect Ganesh just feels that long. It is clear McNally has something to say, but the themes that jump out at you have already been seen. This play will always be compared to Angels, for one reason or another, and this production does nothing to try and change that. When you leave one play thinking of another, there's something wrong. At the risk of ending with the largest cliché possible, this Ganesh isn't perfect.