Frank Galati stands in the middle of what he aptly describes as “a sort of derelict loft.” Gray and bleak, it looks like a deserted artist’s studio. Strewn about the sprawling space are paintings and pieces of sculpture–some impressionism, some cubism, and a striking minimalist work, a square canvas painted nothing but yellow. Depressing and claustrophobic despite its expanse, the room is a far cry from the set for Galati’s last directing effort at the Goodman Theatre, She Always Said, Pablo. That work, a collage of texts by Gertrude Stein and images by Picasso, had for its set an airy, placid design that Galati calls “an exterior landscape . . . a limitless horizon of sky.” This set, Galati says, looking around him as he stands on the Goodman stage, “is a purely psychological interior. It’s very much within, very enclosed–very in the skull. Which,” he smiles wryly, “doesn’t sound like an appropriate context for a comedy. But it really is,” he insists. “It’s a scary comedy.”

The work Galati refers to is the Chicago premiere of Peter Nichols’s Passion Play, which Galati is directing as Goodman’s second main-stage offering in its 1987-88 season. First presented in England in 1981 by the Royal Shakespeare Company, the work has had mixed success on this continent. Its 1983 Broadway production was praised for the lead performance by Frank Langella but little else.

Part of the reason may simply be that Passion Play is fiendishly difficult to pull off. “We haven’t got it right yet,” Galati admitted as the play entered previews last week. Though on the surface it’s a domestic comedy-drama about marital infidelity, it’s thematically much denser than that and technically extremely challenging.

Though a prolific writer for British television and the stage, Nichols is known in the United States almost exclusively for one work: his much-produced 1967 play A Day in the Death of Joe Egg. That play, based on Nichols’s own experiences as a schoolteacher and as the father of a hopelessly disabled child, established Nichols’s special dramatic turf: searingly honest and bizarrely funny explorations of British middle-class marriage told with a theatrical twist. In Joe Egg, the husband and wife stepped out of their naturalistic setting to perform music-hall sketches about life as the parents of a spastic; Daddy Kiss It Better (1969), written for TV, looked at marital breakup through a kaleidoscopic flashback pattern; in Forget-Me-Not Lane (1971), the hero stepped out of his banal present and into an imaginary world of the 1940s of his youth. In two of his more political works, The National Health (1974) and Privates on Parade (1977), Nichols used show business–a TV soap opera in the former, an armed forces song-and-dance troupe in the latter–to make his points about the British welfare state and the decline of empire.

In Passion Play, the topic is again marital crisis–the middle-aged hero, James, betrays his wife Eleanor by having an affair with a young woman, Kate. The device this time is clever but hardly original: James and Eleanor are each portrayed by two actors, one representing the public persona (James and Eleanor), the other playing the inner person (Jim and Nell). But the convention of the doppelganger is worked by Nichols through a remarkable variety of permutations in the context of a second device, what Galati calls “narrative tap dancing with the use of time.” At one point, for instance, the audience watches two simultaneous scenes: one showing James and his alter ego Jim writing a love letter to Kate, the other depicting Eleanor’s discovery of the letter. The verbal interplay between the actors in this and other sequences is described by Galati as “like a string quartet”; in another scene, Nichols specifically calls the dialogue “a fugue of voices.” Galati, known for his fascination with the music of language (he has directed numerous works by Gertrude Stein and also several operas), compares the play to an oratorio with a full complement of arias, duets, trios, even a sextet.

Nichols also uses music to unlock a broader concern of the play, Galati notes. “The deep sense of loss that contemporary artists feel in this godless universe, the loss of faith, is a deep, deep strain in this play, as it is in [Ingmar] Bergman’s work or in [James] Joyce–the obsession with Christian imagery, the mesmeric orbit around Christian ritual.” The drama is set in the weeks before Christmas, yet all the music Nichols calls for in his script is about death: Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion, the requiems of Mozart and Verdi, depressing selections from the repertory of Victorian Christmas carols (Galati has added other music, too, notably some Schubert lieder). Nichols’s titles invariably contain telling puns: the “egg” in Joe Egg is both a symbol of life and a description of the child’s near-immobile state; Privates on Parade is a dirty military joke. Passion Play overtly parallels the passion of Christ with James’s passion for a young woman, who represents for him the earthiness of pre-Christian paganism as well as a bourgeois fling. And just as Bach and Mozart finally give way to rock and roll, so the paintings that James, an art restorer, is involved with proceed from Bernini to a Victorian Christ figure to Matisse and finally to the spare, hopeless minimalism of postmodern art. This artistic deconstruction mirrors the deconstruction of James and Eleanor’s marriage. “The trajectory of visual and musical imagery deposits James and Eleanor very much in the now,” Galati observes–all the time maintaining the droll sense of humor that characterizes all of Nichols’s work.

To bring this multilayered work to Goodman audiences, Galati has made a few changes. On one hand, he’s de-Britishized it, moving it from suburban London to an unspecified American setting. Yet he’s also restored some dramatic material from the British script that was cut from the American version and pared other scenes in order to streamline the harrowing second act. But the key–if Galati and his cast (David Darlow and Stephen Markle as the outer and inner James, Janice St. John and Holland Taylor as the inner and outer Eleanor, and the superb Canadian actress Seana McKenna as Kate) do their jobs right–will be to make the musicianly interaction of voices and gestures (all spelled out very precisely in Nichols’s stage directions) come together technically while coming alive emotionally. If they do, Goodman audiences will be in for an exceptionally exciting piece of theater–and Peter Nichols might finally be known for something other than Joe Egg. Passion Play opens Monday and runs through February 13. Tickets are $16-$27; for reservations and show times call 443-3800.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.