Court Theatre

In his searingly powerful A Whistle in the Dark, seen in 1988 at the Body Politic, Irish playwright Tom Murphy depicted a family of battling brothers, one of whom yearned for a peaceful and intelligent life in harsh contrast to his siblings’ taste for brute force; the hero’s sense of alienation was reinforced by his discomfort as an Irishman living in England. The central characters of The Gigli Concert, also male, are brothers not of the flesh but of the heart; their clashes are mental, not physical (despite the threat of violence represented by a pistol one of them apparently carries in his coat pocket); and their yearnings are not just for earthly peace but for spiritual fulfillment. Their conflicts, and the play’s, are delicate, subtle, hard to define, and impossible to resolve. Seeking satisfaction of the soul, they’re blessed to achieve respite from total despair; the best they can hope for is hope.

J.P.W. King–his girlfriend Mona calls him Jimmy–is an Englishman who has been living for five years in Dublin, where he ekes out a living as a “dynamatologist”–he insists he’s not a psychiatrist, though he sometimes consults psychiatrists on the sly for insight into his clients’ problems. Part mystic, part self-help counselor, part fraud, and mostly failure, King lives in his cluttered little office, conducts a pleasant but uncommitted affair with a younger married woman, and yearns for another woman whom we know only from his end of their phone conversations, which have recently grown morbid and desperate.

Into King’s office walks an Irishman who refuses to give his name: the shabbily genteel, elegantly educated Briton and the burly, well-dressed Irishman are an instant study in contrasts. The Irishman, a self-made building contractor with a bully boy’s blunt manners, proceeds to reveal a taste for fine music: he’s absorbed by the early-20th-century opera star Beniamino Gigli, and has come to King because he wants to sing like his idol.

King’s no voice teacher, but the Irishman’s aspirations aren’t really musical. Gigli’s honey-toned, hammily emotive tenor represents the beauty and grace the Irishman feels is missing in his life; he needs moral, not musical, help. He’s come to the wrong man–King is as burned-out as the Irishman, and he shows it more than his well-heeled, emotionally repressed client. The relationship quickly develops into that of two equals–two brothers–trying half-blindly to help each other achieve the same goal; seeking salvation, they must open up to each other and to themselves, which brings them closer to a suicidal abyss. The roads they take lead them on an epic journey, though The Gigli Concert’s action never leaves King’s dumpy sitting room.

Written in 1983, and revised in 1991–this production is the rewrite’s U.S. premiere–The Gigli Concert is a mature man’s play about mature men; its heroes are both pushing 60, as is Murphy himself. Unlike the rough young comers in the 1961 A Whistle in the Dark, King and the Irishman aren’t trying to prove themselves–they’re trying to live with the selves they’ve already proven. They grapple with existential guilt and the life of the mind; their conversation touches on subjects from Kierkegaard and Jung to varying species of sleeping pill as they fumble toward comprehension of the meaning of life. Mona has a simpler, earthier attitude: life, she says, is “bouncing back.” But King and his client have lost their resilience–though they seem to find it in the soaring phrases of the opera singer who gives their quest a name.

Though Mona has some strong scenes, The Gigli Concert is primarily a duet for its two men. Under William Woodman’s direction, the face-off between the fussy, fey Englishman and the coarse, craggy Irishman emerges as a technical tour de force that communicates potent ideas. But the detail and precision that Jerome Kilty and Tony Mockus Jr. bring to their roles, as King and the Irishman respectively, interfere with the rush of confused, complex emotion that the play aims to unleash. Ironically, where the characters’ passion to sing with the greatest is stifled by their lack of technique, these actors’ technique mutes the passion churning through Murphy’s script.

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