Performing Arts: Theater
February 6, 2016
“The Glory of the World” is a frat party gone philosophical, guised as a 100th birthday party for a long-passed man: Mr. Charles Merton. This man—as is quickly made evident—was a complicated individual whose legacy lingers on quite differently for each of the party attendees. An intriguingly unconventional play, written by Charles Mee and directed by Les Waters, capitalizes on Merton’s unique life which ended suddenly at age 53 due to an accidental electrocution. Ultimately it calls into question the idea of identity - that which defines us and we will be remembered for, the (perhaps even unexpected) impact everyone stands to have on the world.

A garage door is thrown up and seventeen men launch into a banter of toasts to Merton: Merton the Catholic monk, Merton the prolific writer, Merton the pacifist, the mystic, the Buddhist, the communist, the fundamentally good. These toasts evolve into a tangent of attributed quotes (a recurring element of Mee’s script) from Lennon to Einstein, George Bernard Shaw to Lady Gaga, Cameron Diaz to Mae West, and more.

Two of the men—Cameron (played by David Ryan Smith) and Conrad (played by Conrad Scott)—are highlighted. Indicating a relationship gone sour, Conrad unravels, finds a blow up mattress and comically waits for it to fill only to run and jump on it over and over. His fit of physical and emotional turmoil is met by Cameron’s literal offering of a hand. The two kiss, beginning what becomes a beautiful dance of sorts (Movement Director Barney O’Hanlon). Their hands push and grab at each other in a sweet power struggle, all while lock-lipped. The others pair up forehead-to-forehead echoing the couple’s gestures, slow dancing.

Dane Laffrey’s scenic design creates a warehouse feel, which the actors further adorn with deer heads, a pool table, many a red solo cup, and at one point, a row of arm chairs. Sitting in these chairs with sunglasses and neon blankets, the conversation circles back to Merton, heaven, and hell.

A brief scene of choreographed bravado by a handful of the shirtless men follows, then a full cast lip-sync, then the opening of a birthday gift to reveal a toy airplane. Upstage, plastic is laid out and sprinkler turned on as two speedo-clad men mimic swim strokes, eventually giving into slip’n slide action. Just when one thought that would be the strangest thing to happen, a huge rhinoceros is walked across the stage—a reference to one of Merton’s many writings.

Returning in tuxes and sitting in children’s chairs, it’s time for birthday cake. Merton himself is at last quoted, “Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone - we find it with another.” This brief nod to civility and peace is quickly undermined by a heated discussion of nearly every “ism.”

An elaborate fight scene, credited to fight director Ryan Bourque, escalates. Spotlights highlight pair after pair of the men brutally attacking each other. Papers fly about, a bowl is turned into a weapon, a knife is introduced, a sword-shovel fight ensues, and a chainsaw makes an appearance. A scene of utter hysteria is achieved—ironic, of course, given Merton’s anti-violence beliefs. Gunshots startle the already loud, visually wild spectacle and a pizza boy shows up with a pie per man. Back to the present, and the party, we resume.

The chaos and curious action and conversation that are the essence of what is perhaps better referred to as theatrical experience than play, are bookended by silence. Intentionally lengthy, this silence is at times unsettling. Words are projected on the set describing sounds, settings, images, guiding our thoughts. A lone man sits at a desk, back to the audience, still. Contemplation becomes a poignant takeaway.

“The Glory of the World” premiered in Louisville, KY in March 2015 during the 39th Humana Festival of New American Plays and just wrapped its three-week New York City run at BAM’s Harvey Theater.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Jenny Thompson

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