The reflections on theater and its ability to illuminate and change lives in “Dedication or The Stuff of Dreams” might have resonated two seasons back at its originally intended home, the Biltmore — then freshly restored from derelict shell to Broadway bijou. But Manhattan Theater Club’s decision to drop the Terrence McNally commission from its lineup is now validated by Michael Morris’ limp production for Primary Stages. Despite such weighty themes as cancer, assisted suicide, parent-child discord and platonic vs. physical love, this is an inconsequential piece, naggingly void of authenticity, emotional complexity or inspiration.
Of course, with a writer as witty as the prolific McNally, there are compensations, and the play is not without a smattering of amusing dialogue. But the chief reasons to give any attention to this sophomoric work — premiered last summer at the Williamstown Theater Festival — are an enjoyably acidic turn from Marian Seldes, as an imperious dowager in vintage McNally mode, and the welcome return of Nathan Lane for the first time in years to a small-scale ensemble production, his fourth collaboration with the playwright. Sandwiching the job between wrapping “The Producers” film and starting rehearsals for “The Odd Couple,” Lane stepped into the role written with him in mind after Peter Frechette bowed out.
Action unfolds entirely within the crumbling walls and beneath the stately proscenium arch of a once-grand New England theater, efficiently created by designer Narelle Sissons out of the spare utilitarian space of the main stage at 59E59 Theaters, where Primary Stages has taken up residence for its 20th anniversary season.
Lou (Lane) and Jessie (Alison Fraser) years earlier fled the pressures of the New York legit business and headed north to a town where their struggle to produce children’s theater has gone largely unappreciated. Hints are dropped from the start that the couple are not the standard man-and-wife deal and that Lou is gay. But he seems genuinely to love Jessie, almost as much as he loves the theater.
As a birthday surprise, she secures access for him to the town’s storied, long-abandoned Main Street playhouse, where Bernhardt and Duse reportedly appeared, Sophie Tucker entertained during the place’s vaudeville days and Oscar Wilde once graced the podium.
Much of the early going ambles through prosaic territory about the magic of a real purpose-built theater — a discourse somewhat didactically spelled out in Lou’s monologue, delivered center stage under a tight spotlight.
While Lane’s effortless drollery rescues the production from total inertia, things remain pretty static until Jessie’s Courtney Love-esque rock star daughter, Ida (Miriam Shor), arrives. In town for a sold-out arena engagement and trailed by adoring sound man Toby (Darren Pettie), with whom she has a master-servant thing going on, Ida wants to patch up her stormy relationship with mom, as required by her rehab program.
The play’s real boost comes with the appearance of theater owner Annabelle Willard (Seldes), a brittle millionaire who detests the theater and children and self-medicates with martinis for her terminal cancer of the esophagus. Convinced by Jessie’s lie that Lou also has cancer, Annabelle agrees to give them the theater and full financing, in exchange for Lou’s help to deliver her from an unendurably painful end.
Poisoned by her own inability to dream, Mrs. Willard is a flamboyant, grandly tragic figure. But even the redoubtable Seldes is unable to overcome the arch shallowness of McNally’s writing and make her real. The character is especially misused by the clumsy ending.
There’s turmoil aplenty here, given additional fuel by the yearning of Jessie and Lou for human contact beyond the terms of their arrangement. But the characters remain one-dimensional, and neither McNally nor Morris manage to wring any genuine emotion from the conflicts that, upon being aired, go nowhere.
Lane, Seldes and Shor almost provide reason to keep watching even when the writing sells them short. Of the remaining cast, Fraser has the most meat to chew on, with not one but three volatile relationships at stake, but her wan performance rarely goes beyond a brow furrowed with anxiety.
The comic drama is marginally stronger on the former than the latter, less successful when it flirts with farce and melodrama. McNally teases some humor out of references to Shakespeare, the Greeks, rock ‘n’ roll as the new theater of spectacle. But the jokes are mostly studied quips that flaunt their cleverness.
For a play by one of the mainstays of contemporary American theater, supposedly driven by impassioned concern for the fragile health of his chosen medium, “Dedication” shows a sad absence of heart or sincerity. While it purports to capture the evaporation of theatrical illusion when the work lights come up on the harsh interpersonal realities of life, the play skates too glibly along the surface of either world to register even the faintest of truths.