The chaos that has followed the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe is reflected all too enthusiastically in David Edgar’s “Pentecost.” The play’s most persistently evoked symbol, the Tower of Babel, gives rise to a script that really is a tower of babble. When it isn’t standing its large cast on metaphorical soap boxes and having them deliver didactic lectures on such ambitious but unwieldy subjects as current events in Eastern Europe and the arcane ins and outs of art history, it’s telling folk tales in either foreign languages or pidgin English.
Over the past 25 years prolific British playwright Edgar has written more than 50 plays, teleplays and screenplays, though in the U.S. he remains known primarily as the adaptor of Dickens'”The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby,”one of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s biggest successes. “Pentecost” is unlikely to spread his fame much further in this country.
Wildly overwritten, “Pentecost” is so busy providing mouthpieces for the playwright that it fails to create any believable characters. This leaves its cast and its Yale Rep director Stan Wojowedski Jr. at a loss as to how to cope. The final decision seems to have been to go with the script’s soap-box aspects and deliver them with all the finesse of a street-corner political harangue. Seldom have so many actors on one stage declaimed their lines as vehemently as they do here, and to such opaque effect, not least because the majority of the characters they play either can’t speak English or do so badly.
Perhaps in an attempt to relieve his play’s verbosity, Edgar tosses in a couple of rather gratuitous scenes of sex and nudity. Early in Act 1 a young female prostitute brings a john into the church for quick (interrupted) anal sex. In Act 2 a young Roman Catholic priest briefly appears stark naked.
Theatergoers familiar with the Bible know that on the Pentecost the Holy Spirit gave the disciples the power to speak in such a way that people of different languages could understand them. Playwright Edgar is not so blessed, and by halfway through Act 2 of “Pentecost” his play all but disintegrates into ludicrousness.
It takes place in a medieval church in an unidentified country that’s suspiciously like Hungary. Over the past 40 or so years it has been used as a torture chamber, a stable, a food store — you name it. At first sight, as designed with considerable grandeur by Michael Yeargan, it’s dominated by a vast Soviet Realist mural of happy workers striding into a bright future.
Ah, but what’s behind that mural? Quite possibly the art find of the century, a religious fresco painted by an unknown artist who might have discovered three-dimensional perspective prior to Giotto. Enter a gaggle of art historians from around the world, including an unforgivably cliched pushy Jewish-American from Cornell violently opposed to any restoration of the fresco that would disturb its patina. A plethora of claims are also made on the church and the fresco by, among others, the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches and the unidentified country’s Minister for the Preservation of National Monuments, who rather likes the idea of the fresco being removed from the church and placed in a museum as a monumental tourist trap and money spinner.
Act 1 ends with the church suddenly being taken over by a group of refugees without countries but with machine guns who take the art historians hostage, demanding that they be given freedom and countries in which to live. What seems like hours later the church is broken into by a highly armed rescue force, during which the fresco is destroyed and some refugees and hostages are killed. The play’s final word is “free.”
Edgar at least has the guts to deal with important late-20th century issues; the theater desperately needs more brave playwrights. But in “Pentecost” his ability falls short of his ambition, and the result is numbing rather than exhilarating or even enlightening. A subtler, more multidimensional production might reveal “Pentecost” in a more flattering light, but at Yale an enormous amount of effort — including a set that has to be elaborately re-dressed between scenes as the ancient fresco is uncovered — looks to have been squandered on a play that’s terminally recalcitrant.