The faded glory of a former synagogue on Manhattan’s Lower East Side provides the ideal atmosphere for Paul Selig’s curious character studies. Tyne Daly brings a distinctive voice to the unwieldy collection of monologues in “Mystery School,” but the playwright’s women are awkwardly drawn and not terribly interesting.
The five characters suffering varying degrees of despair, disillusion and spiritual renewal are vigorously portrayed by Daly. With the exception of a subtle disturbance of her short-cropped coiffure, and the occasional addition of a shawl, the actress avoids any changes in makeup or costume. Through shadings in expression and vocal dynamics, Daly is an imposing and always interesting theatrical presence.
The distressed ladies present another problem. In the opening segment, an evangelistic preacher gossips about errant parishioners, including a psychic friend who listened to false prophets and a minister who left the pulpit to become a tap dancer.
A flaky TV talkshow host, as eccentric as Coward’s Madame Arcati, comments on weird weather conditions, the end of the world and accesses the diverse talents of local psychics. Amelia, a lesbian “living in alcoholic bliss,” confesses that her companion has experienced a spiritual awakening. Addressing an AA gathering in a church hall, she labels her solemn surroundings as “Our Lady of Perpetual Thirst.”
The closing piece finds a Bronx high school teacher delivering a meandering commencement address in which she quips that a Prozac prescription might have been a remedy for Joan of Arc.
The most compelling piece finds Daly as the reserved, grieving widow of an archeologist narrating a slide show for a local historical society. The visuals include an urn with soil from the Nile, tomahawks, ancient shattered skulls and bone fragments. Her digressive commentary wanders into lost empires and the comforting support of an elusive Latina housekeeper. Digging into her own harbored suffering, the stoic narrator purges her soul. Surveying the tribal relics of her past, she asks, “Where did I put the pain?”
The other ladies could easily be dismissed with an expansion of this character, who has much more to reveal.
The minimal staging moves Daly swiftly from lectern to pulpit with a handful of props. The dark corners and sweeping arches of the tattered temple complement the play’s title. The impressive set and lighting design provide a feast of little lights, candles and shadows that keep the viewer transfixed.