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Griffin Theatre Company

I’ve never gotten up in a theater during the middle of a show and yelled at the stage, “Get on with it, will you?” But I came awfully close at Loving Little Egypt, Griffin Theatre’s world-premiere adaptation of Thomas McMahon’s 1987 novel.

Here’s an exciting, funny story drained of nearly all tension and humor by deadly sluggish pacing. Here’s a cinematically fluid narrative that clunks along onstage in annoying fits and starts, like a car whose engine is conking out, because someone thought that every time you change scenes you have to have a long blackout. And here’s a marvelously prickly collection of people burning with conflict–among and within themselves–reduced to sentimental stock figures by the actors’ sincere but timid performances under Richard A. Barletta’s direction.

This last flaw is the worst, because the key to Loving Little Egypt–a witty blend of real and fictitious events in the manner of E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime–is the complexity of highly intelligent, often ruthless characters. The story is propelled by the actions of a group of scientific geniuses whose brilliance, accompanied (and perhaps stimulated) by their physical limitations, sets them apart from the world in which they still must live. Aloof, insecure, short-fused, and highly competitive, the eggheads that populate this delightful tall tale chafe against each other–and against the less gifted people around them–in ways that are often unpleasant; bringing these folks alive onstage requires actors able, and a director willing, to dig into the murky areas where intellect and emotions collide. Instead, Griffin Theatre gives us cute curmudgeons–and slow-moving ones at that.

The plot, for those who are unfamiliar with McMahon’s book (as I was), concerns Mourly Vold, a visually impaired teenager in the early 1920s, whose acute hearing is complemented by an uncanny (and sometimes misused) talent for vocal mimicry. He can imitate any animal, any person–including his teachers, which gets him in trouble (and thus satisfies his craving for attention)–and any mechanical sound. He can even imitate the clicking sound of relay switches in the still-young telephone system, which enables him to establish a network of long-distance hackers throughout the nation’s schools for blind children. Having found at last a cause in the pleasure he’s helping to bring these lonely, isolated kids, Mourly wants to protect his system when it attracts the attention of certain authorities–such as media mogul William Randolph Hearst, who labels Mourly and his friends communist saboteurs in an effort to stir up public fears about Red revolution. (Hearst is particularly concerned about Mexico, where he happens to have some properties he wants to protect.) Hearst brings in Thomas Edison to outsmart Mourly’s “ring”–which further antagonizes Mourly, who happens to be friends with Edison’s longtime rivals Alexander Graham Bell and Nikola Tesla, as well as with Edison’s alienated son, Sparky. (The facts that grouchy Edison is hard of hearing and Bell is married to a deaf woman bring additional elements of irony to their dealings with the visually handicapped but aurally gifted Mourly.) The battle of wits climaxes with a showdown in Hearst’s apartment, where Mourly, armed only with the power of electricity, threatens to bring Hearst’s world quite literally down around his feet.

Playwright William J. Massolia has effectively compressed McMahon’s quirkily digressive book into a script that nicely evokes the story’s era while suggesting parallels to ours. Loving Little Egypt’s 1876-1923 time frame is the best and worst of times. It’s a period of explosive inventiveness inhabited by great minds and dominated by bold scientific breakthroughs; it’s also a period of reactionary ignorance, characterized by anticommunist paranoia, moralistic prohibitionism, and unscrupulous government-media alliances, as well as by more base and basic tendencies. A very funny anecdote, told early in the play, concerns Edison’s kinetoscope: in an effort to broaden the device’s popularity, he advised his partners to dump comedy films because flesh sold better; “Get us Little Egypt,” he declared, referring to the crowd-pleasing Syrian sex symbol, “or better a White Woman for Same.”

It is from Edison’s “Little Egypt” movies that Mourly takes his code name. Able to see only images that are very close with the aid of special spectacles, he is fascinated by these proto- peep shows–not only because of the sexuality Little Egypt embodies, but because he thinks of himself as being like her, “living” inside a mechanical device and affecting the outside world while remaining apart from it. How the electrical and emotional connections he makes draw him from that mental cocoon is the real story of Loving Little Egypt. But Kevin Farrell lacks the snappish intensity and camouflaged neediness of Mourly (and plenty of real-life kids like him), while the supporting performers don’t provide the kind of convincing challenges that would shake Mourly out of his shell. Except for Eric Zudak’s young J. Edgar Hoover, whose baby-faced pugnacity suggests the corruption and cruelty to come, all these people are very nice–but not very interesting.

The weak performances are especially problematic because the low-budget production doesn’t begin to come close to the spectacle the story demands. Lacking the physical and financial resources for such spectacle, Barletta should have emphasized fluidity and simplicity; instead, he encumbers the show with stodgy staging that too often suggests a kitschy historical pageant. With its potential for period atmospherics (costume designs by Justine Liht are a definite help) and sweeping special effects (especially in the literally roof-shaking climax), this play would be a natural for the big-budget Goodman Theatre or one of its ilk. No one expects anything approaching such an elaborate scale from a small company like Griffin, but it could at least have given us a show that moved.