Review: ‘An Imaginary Life’

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.

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, when he reveals which scenario was real. For those with patience, the outcome is worth the wait.

Parnell peppers his dialogue with plenty of 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.

Art certainly allows for the resurrection of the dead, but the artist better have a damned good explanation, and too often Parnell doesn’t. That said, “An Imaginary Life” can be quite engaging, even beyond its guessing-game structure. 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. Parnell populates his black comedy with likable characters.

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 might be a complaint to some, a kick to others, but it’s typical of the play’s general self-consciousness.

Don Scardino’s skillful direction provides some fluidity that the play itself occasionally lacks, particularly in the transitions between scenes.

When Parnell finally 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.

An Imaginary Life

(Playwrights Horizons, New York; 146 seats, $ 30 top)

Production

A Playwrights Horizons presentation of a play in two acts by Peter Parnell. Directed by Don Scardino.

Creative

Sets, Loren Sherman; costumes, Jess Goldstein; lights, Phil Monat; sound, Raymond D. Schilke; production stage manager, Dianne Trulock. Artistic director, Scardino. Opened Dec. 5, 1993, reviewed Dec. 1.

Cast

Matt Abelman ... Chip Zien Maggs Morris ... Caroline Aaron Dr. Jeff Portnoy ... Reed Birney Noah Abelman ... Christopher Collet Spenser Glick ... Jonathan Walker Igor Fuchs ...Tim Blake Nelson Marvin Frappe ... Merwin Goldsmith
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