There’s an original theater voice in Yale Rep’s world preem of Marcus Gardley’s poetic semiautobiographical work “dance of the holy ghosts.” But at this stage, this “play on memory” needs major editing and refocusing. Though there’s grace and humor in the writing, this personal dreamscape makes for one long night at more than 2½ hours.
The problem is the splitting of the story between 27-year-old Marcus G. (Brian Henry) and Oscar (Chuck Cooper), the rogue grandfather with whom the young man is trying to reconnect. The play jumps back and forth in time — and memory — as it tells parallel tales of Oscar’s self-centered life and a 10-year-old’s coming of age and coming to terms with his granddad’s failures.
But it’s only Oscar’s story that’s sufficiently strong dramatically. His life — which spans 50 years — includes the wooing of his lively, strong-willed wife (Harriett D. Foy) and losing her due to his irresponsibility, jealousy and rage. Now a 72-year-old man, Oscar finds his life — and mind — slipping away as he clings to his book of memories and the safety of the moonlight.
Oscar’s now-estranged adult grandson arrives with a request to sing at his mother’s funeral, disturbing the secure and insular world the old man has created for himself. In Oscar’s unsettled state, scents, sounds and sights trigger memories from the past, nudged by the ghosts of the dearly departed.
However, large chunks of the play center on Marcus in the Middle, detailing the 10-year-old’s life at school. But third-grade social dynamics such as classroom crushes and the agonies of geekdom are simply less compelling. Under Liz Diamond’s direction, these belabored scenes are staged with the wincing comic exaggeration common to adults portraying children.
Diamond also hasn’t quite found the stage vocabulary to suit Gardley’s time-tripping, stream-of-unconscious writing, which flows in and out of itself. (Jennifer Tipton’s moonlighting is the most unifying element of the production.)
Stylistically, the two storylines are not compatible. Oscar’s narrative has the improvisatory feel of a blues number, full of grace notes, spontaneous riffs and theatrical flourish. The young boy’s immature story is more shallow pop. (A long musical number evoking Michael Jackson is ill conceived and puts the brakes on an otherwise solid second act.)
Scott Davenport Richards provides the original musical numbers, making the most of the voices of Cooper — a Broadway musical pro — and the sultry and heartfelt Foy; Peter Pucci stages the dances.
Played without sentimentality but with immense humor, charm and charisma by Cooper, Oscar is the type of character whom auds find endlessly fascinating, whether depicted as a 22-year-old man looking for love or a senior citizen more comfortable in the dark. (“Folks have to learn to warm up to me. Marcus, I’m like a pillow. I’m usually cold when you lay your head on me. But ’bout the time you fall asleep, you know, get comfortable round me, I get you warm. I make you dream.”)
Henry is best as the older, conflicted Marcus G., now a poet-professor, trying to fulfill his mother’s last wish but dealing with the bad blood between his grandfather and himself. Foy’s Viola makes one understand why Oscar has been obsessed with her all his life. La Tonya Borsay warmly fills in the underwritten role of Marcus’ mother, especially as she tries to bring both lost men into the light.
Though the play has its problems, Gardley, a 2004 Yale School of Drama grad who now teaches at Columbia, possesses a love of language, ear for dialogue and theatrical nerve — he’s unafraid to make the stage a dreamlike setting for the mind and heart to intersect. Clearly, he is a writer to remember.