We Are the Knights Who Say "Motherfucker": Kenneth Lonergan's Medieval Play 

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Medieval Play
Signature Theatre

Kenneth Lonergan became a cinephile rallying point last year when his long-delayed film Margaret was quietly released and then brought back into select theaters for awards consideration. Lots of film lovers in Manhattan made a point of seeing it several times when it played at Cinema Village, and the announcement of a Margaret DVD with added footage has fans of the film in a state of extreme excitement. But Lonergan has been best known as a writer for the theater, working in a style of patient, careful naturalism in plays like This is Our Youth, Lobby Hero and The Waverly Gallery, a tribute to his grandmother. Consequently, the last thing to be expected of Lonergan is that he would write and direct a sophomoric comedy like Medieval Play, which feels like several college-type skits on medievalism stuck together end to end.

Medieval Play (through June 24) is redolent of Monty Python and the early plays of Christopher Durang, and to really work in that vein, it needs to be gleeful, shameless, outrageous and sharp. Lonergan's idea of a funny joke is to have a knight or a nun say "Motherfucker!" very loudly, and a dismaying amount of the humor is dependent upon verbal anachronisms and modern urban behavior by characters in medieval costume. The play begins with a stupefyingly long conversation about medieval times between two knights, Sir Ralph (Josh Hamilton) and Sir Alfred (Tate Donovan), and many of the ensuing scenes are equally distended. The funniest moments come during a sit-down dinner in which a hostess (Halley Feiffer) reads aloud from a book of etiquette and the knights and wenches try to conform to her instructions on table manners, but this set piece, like so many others, seems to go on forever for no particular reason. In Margaret, many scenes went on longer than we are used to in a film, often with reams of smart dialogue going by at a fast clip, and this kind of abundance worked beautifully for Lonergan there, but when the same unedited technique is applied to a burlesque-type comedy like Medieval Play, the result is heavy-footed.

Of all the actors, only Feiffer plays in the appropriate goonish comic style, though C.J. Wilson works very hard at one point to make a slapstick death scene into a laugh riot. Hamilton plays with wide-eyed earnestness, as if he expects a more serious play to cohere around him, but instead we get more cries of "Motherfucker!" and "Shit!" and jokes about medieval medicine and lengthy narrative exposition delivered in dry tones by Catherine of Siena (Heather Burns, who makes for an awfully reasonable psychotic stigmatic). At the end, Catherine describes The Great Schism between two different popes and wonders if there was any point at all to the conflict, and it's easy to wonder the same thing about Medieval Play, which seems a juvenile and unfunny indulgence next to the mature character drama we've come to expect from Lonergan.

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