Normally, flights of fancy in legitimate theater are a dangerous prospect. They can get too confusing or absurd for an audience to follow, and unless you tread carefully, your writing can end up seeming lazy. When you set the ground rules that Terrence McNally sets in A Perfect Ganesh, however, your opportunities for being fanciful are virtually limitless.
The overwhelming theme of A Perfect Ganesh is pantheism; the play emphasizes the interconnectedness of humans to each other and to the rest of the world, and how blind Westerners can often be to the lives and environments of even those closest to them. When, in the opening monologue, we meet Ganesha (Gary Mahmoud), the Hindu god who is “in your kiss” as well as “in your cancer,” we allow ourselves to see a whole, free-flowing unity in everything that happens in the next two hours. To criticize inconsistency in A Perfect Ganesh would just be bad karma.
To contrast Ganesha’s world to our own, McNally gives us perhaps the pinnacle (some would say lowpoint) of the Western sensibility—two wealthy ladies from Greenwich, Connecticut. Kitty and Margaret think India offers a respite from a lifetime of trips to the Caribbean. Soon, however, we learn of larger spiritual longings that plague these two. They have come to India to heal, both for emotional and physical purposes. Both have suffered tragedies that have caused irrevocable damage to their souls, and both get lost in their attempts to recover the good spirits that the women are too damaged to find again.
A Perfect Ganesh, which deals with homophobia quite prominently, was a Pulitzer finalist in 1994. It lost to Albee’s Three Tall Women, perhaps a safe pick after another gay-themed play, Angels in America, had won the Pulitzer the previous year. McNally would go on to win back-to-back Tonys for Love! Valour! Compassion! and Master Class. As a result, A Perfect Ganesh has slipped through the cracks.
As the WorkShop Theater Company’s revival proves, however, not only is Ganesh one of McNally’s best plays (it may even be his best), but it’s one whose relevance has only grown stronger. In an era where America has become increasingly isolated from the rest of the world, where sections of America have grown hostile to other sections, and where spirituality has been squeezed out by technical and socioeconomic demands, A Perfect Ganesh is a crucial reminder of just how close to each other we really are, yet how distant we can often seem.
Unfortunately, the WorkShop’s revival leaves something to be desired. In a play where ethnicity, dialects, and characters change constantly, it’s crucial that actors are able to handle all the shifts, and communicate them to the audience clearly. In Peter Sylvester’s production however, it’s unclear whether slips of the tongue are due to intentional language divides or actors simply missing their lines. A play with such majestic themes could also use a more expansive production, and while the problem can’t be blamed on WorkShop’s modest space, the production still feels too cramped and neurotic for the play to feel completely natural.
The production values mar what are otherwise some excellent performances. In particular, Mahmoud, who maintains his Ganesha mentality through multiple characters, commands the stage with his voice, his pinpoint-precise facial expressions, and a confidence that never drops despite all obstacles. As Katharine, Ellen Barry truly stands out as a Connecticut housewife with white-trash roots who, unlike her cold, bitchy fellow traveler Margaret, is unafraid to let herself get lost in emotion and wonder at the new world she’s seeing.
As Margaret, Charlotte Hampden does very well playing up the Connecticut stereotypes, but has a harder time expressing her character’s more human side. Margaret is always shut off, and her unflinching inability to open up is a necessary element of the play. But when she recalls some legitimately tragic experiences, it would be nice if we could see some trace of human emotion.
Nonetheless, it is a credit to the WorkShop Theater Company that it reminds us of a forgotten McNally classic, and that it reintroduces a play dating from deeper into the Culture Wars, one that showed us that even when hostilities at all levels of humanity are at a high point, we’re more connected than we initially appear. McNally used the power of live theater to harness that closeness; it’s up to us to take it with us after we leave the theater.
A Perfect Ganesh by Terrence McNally. Directed by Peter Sylvester; set design by Aaron P. Mastin; costume design by Cynthia D. Johnson; light design by Duane Pagano; sound design by Peter Carpenter. Photos by Sylvester.
Starring Gary Mahmoud (Ganesha), C.K. Allen (Man), Charlotte Hampden (Margaret Civil), and Ellen Barry (Katharine Brynne).
A Perfect Ganesh runs through September 13. Tickets can be purchased here.