Moby Pomerance’s “The Good Book of Pedantry and Wonder,” a lightly fictionalized saga of the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, offers less than meets the eye in its stylishly mounted world premiere co-produced by Boston Court and Circle X. The play touches on a dozen themes (both Victorian and modern) without rallying around the central topic: those magnificent volumes.
In Pomerance’s telling, the famous Oxford Scriptorium — a dank shed full to bursting with submitted words, origins and citations on millions of paper scraps — was notable less for its mission to catalogue the entire English language than for its makeshift staff’s psychological crotchets. Project leader James Murray (John Getz) roars through the rooms in a torrent of absent-minded invective, largely oblivious to put-upon daughter Jane (Melanie Lora) and weak prodigal son Paul (Ryan Welsh), let alone overworked clerk Smythic (Time Winters).
They talk out their individual concerns — some quite contemporary, including Jane’s spirited resentment of sexism and Paul’s wavering sexuality — without any sense of momentous enterprise. Smythic complains about carrying coal and Murray his lost pen; Paul wants Daddy’s attention and Jane her life back. But where’s the OED work?
Never do the characters set aside their quibbles to bond over the love of language. Never do we participate in the anxieties and excitement that must have kept this quixotic project together over decades and against impossible odds. The number “704” — the annual page count Murray was contractually obligated to deliver — is bruited about without bringing any urgency to the table.
Putting the OED on the sidelines leaves us with the undercompelling human drama. Under John Langs’ direction, Lora grimly slaps down fools in a mannered turn of unrelieved unpleasantness, and Welsh wears his character’s vulnerabilities on his sleeve. Though Getz is utterly believable as the whirlwind Murray, virtually every scene is marked by the same sputtered quibbles, while Gillian Doyle and Henry Todd Ostendorf make little impression in their barely sketched out roles.
By contrast, Winters makes us feel Smythic’s profound commitment to his labors, rendering his comedy relief both funny and bittersweet.
And Travis Michael Holder’s Wynchell, a philologist swept into the Murray orbit, cares more about the book than life itself. His precisely etched, achingly poignant cameo hints at how stirring this play could be if it didn’t keep spinning off on tangents.
Designer Brian Sidney Bembridge is the evening’s real hero. There’s more eloquence in the contrast between cramped interior and great outdoors, and more hints of lexicographical joy in the lights suggestively peeping through the pigeonholed submission slips, than in all of Pomerance’s words, words, words.