Dedication or The Stuff of Dreams
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
August 12, 2005
Early in Act One of Terrence McNally’s wonderful new play, Dedication, or the Stuff of Dreams, Lou Nuncle, one half of a couple that runs a children’s theatre company somewhere in Upstate New York, surveys a ramshackle old vaudeville house from its dilapidated stage and says, “This is your history, America: why are you so careless with it?” It’s one of several statements made throughout the evening in which one can sense playwright McNally putting forth his theme: namely, that of a country that has abandoned the richness of its own culture in favor of more shallow and fleeting things. If proselytizing and rhetoric isn’t your cup of tea, then fear not: McNally has more than one way of getting his point across. His preferred method of doing so here, despite some occasional moralizing, is love. Above all else, Dedication is a play about love of the theatre, and how far people are willing to go for that love. It is both sad and funny, with a streak of humanism at least as big as its heart. In spite of America’s currently coarse and cynical culture, Dedication is loaded with a life-affirming sincerity and a generosity of spirit that is overwhelmingly contagious.
Lou and his longtime partner, Jessie, have run their children’s theatre out of the local mall for years (even though they’re not married, they tell everyone in their conservative community that they are so as not to rock the boat). Their dream is to take over the decaying, grand old theatre in the center of town and restore it to its former glory. The rich, imperious Annabelle Willard, who owns the theatre, is willing to give it to them for free—on two conditions. Two very steep conditions. To say more would spoil the many surprises that Dedication has up its sleeve. Suffice it to say that Mrs. Willard’s conditions test the limits of Lou and Jessie’s love for the theatre.
What I can tell you is that Dedication is populated with a cast of colorful supporting characters. There’s Arnold, Lou and Jessie’s devoted Shakespeare-spouting technical director; Ida, Jessie’s caustic rock star daughter; Toby, Ida’s loyal, fun-loving sound-technician boyfriend; and Edward, Mrs. Willard’s obedient but off-center driver. Lou, Jessie, and Arnold are the dreamers. Lou thinks that because he and Jessie are artists, the old theatre should be theirs “by divine rights, artistic rights, moral rights.” Arnold is an endless source of trivia about such luminaries as Eugene O’Neill, Edwin Booth, and Oscar Wilde. At one point in Act Two, in response to her daughter’s scorn for a life in the theatre, Jessie declares, “What Lou and I do matters.” Ida’s response? “How can it matter if nobody comes?” Obviously, she’s the voice of cold pragmatism in Dedication—as is Mrs. Willard, who’s not above being philanthropic as long as there’s something in it for her.
Despite representing both points of view, McNally clearly favors one over the other, and he uses Shakespeare to illustrate his point that the arts are important and touch more lives than anyone knows. Naturally, Arnold can quote Shakespeare up, down, and sideways. But when Toby (looking more like a ravaged rock star himself than a roadie) starts quoting the Bard, it’s a surprise. It turns out he learned about Shakespeare’s plays early on in school, and has loved them ever since. (His and Arnold’s re-enactment of the tent scene from Julius Caesar is one of the evening’s highlights.) Even old Mrs. Willard—an admitted non-fan of the theatre—isn’t immune to the Bard’s reach and influence. She makes a convincing argument that modern theatre really began with Shakespeare, since he was the first person to banish gods and monsters from the stage and replace them with mankind’s innermost thoughts and feelings.
Material this rich always provides great roles for actors, and Dedication is no different. In a rare dramatic role, Nathan Lane excels as Lou, giving a moving and memorable performance, and reminding us that he is much more than just a funnyman—he’s also a remarkable and accomplished serious actor. He more than holds his own with the formidable Marian Seldes, with whom he shares several intense scenes. Her performance as Mrs. Willard is just another in a long line of excellent ones for her. She makes snobbery and bluntness funny while keeping them both very real—a neat trick.
The rest of the cast is also superb, banding together like a sports team cruising towards a championship title. Alison Fraser is terrific as Jessie, making decency appealing as well as virtuous. The always dependable Michael Countryman turns in another fine, endearing performance as Arnold. As Ida and Toby, Miriam Shor and Darren Pettie further their reputations as two of the brighter new stars on the theatre scene. And R.E. Rodgers makes the most of Edward, turning his subservient devotion into better comedy than one expects.
Director Michael Morris weaves Dedication’s many subplots into a unified whole by focusing on the play’s humanism, the one constant throughout, and keeping Lou and Jessie’s bond—the theatre—at the forefront. He helps the actors smoothly navigate some tricky character transitions and keeps them all rooted in the world of the same play. Set designer Narelle Sissons’s perfectly realized evocation of the rundown playhouse—complete with dust tarps covering the audience section of the Primary Stages main stage—also helps punctuate McNally’s theme. Laura Crow’s costumes and Jeff Croiter’s lights are equally splendid, too.
Late in Act Two, after being asked by Mrs. Willard what his dream is, Lou admits that he wants to create a playhouse where kids can feel good about themselves—where they can learn how to be confident and be good people—all the while his voice is aquiver with the agony of a long-held childhood secret (another surprise I can’t give away here). As Dedication, or the Stuff of Dreams shows, Terrence McNally wants much the same for theatregoers everywhere: a place where they can be themselves (or maybe even find themselves), fall in love with an art form, and experience the stuff that dreams are made of. Follow him on this journey, fall in love with the magic of theatre, and dream away.