I’ve observed the Carol Tambor “Best of Edinburgh” Award to be one of the more meaningful honors a show can receive. Midsummer, written and directed by David Greig with music by Gordon McIntyre, won that award and has now arrived in New York with cast intact for a brief run (through Jan. 26) at the Clurman Theatre on Theatre Row. Like Metamorphoses, an earlier “Best of Edinburgh” winner, it validates its selection with superb writing, clever presentation, and excellent performances.
The action-packed two-hander stars Cora Bissett and Matthew Pidgeon, two fine actors who have remarkable comic and stychomythic timing and are also musically gifted, as a pair of socially adrift 35-year-olds who get drunk and hook up in a pub, then embark on a glorious “lost weekend” that ends with the possibility of something more. At intervals they grab guitars and sing McIntyre’s sweet, limpid folk-pop songs to illustrate some of the undercurrents of the action, which involves everything from love and sex to bondage and Elmo.
L-R: Cora Bissett and Matthew Pidgeon in MIDSUMMER [A PLAY WITH SONGS] running at the Clurman Theater. Photo by Douglas Robertson
On the surface, this structure brings to mind Once, but while that worthy show carries just about as much sentiment as it can without collapsing into a pool of tears, Midsummer is pure witty entertainment. Also, the musicianship here is more abstracted from these characters’ lives, which makes Midsummer a little more like musical theater or opera.
On the other hand, the songs don’t directly move the action forward so much as they express otherwise unacknowledged thoughts and states of mind, though they do bridge that divide at times. The recurring theme “Love will break your heart,” for example, feels like an omniscient observation, but crosses over to the actual hearts of our protagonists with the closing line “But sometimes you want it to.” Later, as Bob and Helena grow more and more entangled, they sing: “I’m itching to be told that life does more than make you old…We can do anything tonight,” showing off McIntyre’s knack for the pinpoint lyric.
Like the songs, which are sparse and mostly short, the fast-paced but densely packed scenes illuminate what’s happening inside the heads of these lovers-manqué as they shake off terrible hangovers and try to get on with their lives. Helena (Ms. Bissett), always a bridesmaid, races to her sister’s wedding, while Bob (Mr. Pidgeon), a small-time crook, bumbles through a black-market job for a local crime boss. As needed, the actors engagingly slip into the roles of incidental characters like the crime boss and Helena’s young nephew, a boy who, like Bob’s misbegotten “career,” functions mostly to point up his elder’s single status and rapid approach toward middle age. But these sidetracks just add color to the central story.
Bob and Helena’s climactic run through the streets of Edinburgh builds on their runs around (and through) the audience; for them running to is too often code for running from, at least until the note of hope at the end. And when it comes to ends, the play has a few too many; the structure unwinds in the last third, resulting in a loss of punch. But in spite of that one failing, Midsummer earns the accolades it’s already won and deserves fresh appreciation by a new audience here in the colonies. It runs through January 26 at the Clurman Theatre on Theatre Row.