Peter Parnell’s “An Imaginary Life” just might get more mileage out of the old play-within-a-play trick than anything since Hamlet caught the conscience of the king. Audience allegiance might rise and fall with every twist and turn, but Parnell’s final imagining makes the previous back-and-forth worthwhile.
The winding, sometimes exasperating is-it-real-or-is-it-fiction premise has a terminally ill scribe penning an autobiographical play in which the lump on his thigh proves benign. Or is the benign prognosis reality, and the pending death scenario a fiction? In scene after scene, the cast plays out one possibility — dropping plenty of hints that this is the real situation — only to play the following scene in the opposite manner, dropping even stronger hints along the way.
Parnell maintains this juggling act until the play’s final minutes. For those with patience, the outcome is worth the wait.
“I’ve always had a slight problem with reality,” says Parnell’s stand-in, protagonist Matt Abelman (Chip Zien). Parnell peppers his dialogue with plenty of such verbal winks to the audience, too often to blunt and obvious effect. At one point, Abelman, the playwright’s fictional stand-in, tells another character that his autobiographical play — titled, of course, “An Imaginary Life”– will keep the audience from knowing what’s real and what’s imaginary “for a pretty long time.”
One suspects Parnell provides such unsubtle reassurance to keep his real-life audience from growing weary of the conceit, but a better stab at placation might have been to take more clever advantage of his premise. Where Tony Kushner brilliantly celebrates the magic of theater by intricately weaving “fact” and “fantasy” throughout “Angels in America,” Parnell wants to accomplish the same goal but simply lies to his audience time and again.
Art certainly allows for the resurrection of the dead, but the artist better have a damned good explanation, and too often Parnell doesn’t. It’s as if Agatha Christie solved a mystery without providing her readers the necessary clues.
That said, “An Imaginary Life” can be quite engaging. The play’s considerable intelligence comes not from its puzzlements but from Parnell’s examination of love and art and their value in the face of death. He populates his black comedy with likable characters, even if his play’s intricate structure burdens their words with heavy exposition.
In addition to Matt, a hypochondriacal Woody Allen type, “Life” features his ex-wife and best friend, mystery writer Maggs Morris (Caroline Aaron); her beau and Matt’s sleazy professional rival, Spenser Glick (Jonathan Walker); Matt and Maggs’ Hindu-obsessed son, Noah (Christopher Collet); and Matt’s physician and lover, Dr. Jeff Portnoy (Reed Birney). The literary jokiness of Portnoy’s name is typical of the play’s self-consciousness.
Two minor characters — a strange playwright (Tim Blake Nelson) who stalks Matt and a clownish producer (Merwin Goldsmith) — play roles in the fact and fiction scenarios.
Don Scardino’s skillful direction provides some fluidity that the play itself occasionally lacks, particularly in the transitions between scenes. As usual, Scardino works well with his cast, drawing performances that shift in tone with each turn of plot.
When Parnell arrives at the mystery-solving end, he writes with a directness that is welcome indeed. The ending does more than arrive at a solution: It justifies all the bumps in the path along the way. Imagine that while you’re en route.