“Sympathetic Magic” is a Rewarding Gem at BST
Make the questing trip to Catskill to find some theater that will challenge and complete you by attending “Sympathetic Magic” by Lanford Wilson at Bridge Street Theatre. You will find like-minded individuals in the audience, in the management of the theater and in the characters onstage. Everyone in the play, which consists of artists, scientists and clergy, is searching for answers to the mysteries of the Universe. You will also be, unknowingly, performing the central metaphor of the play, which holds that sympathetic magic is the act of imitating something (say, making rain noises when you want a thunderstorm) to bring about the real thing. My trip to Exit 21 of the Thruway brings about the desired beauty that we seek. Our attendance and devotion complete the circle that the artists and I crave.
The play premiered in New York in 1997 and is set in the San Francisco area, where an astrophysicist named Ian “Andy” Anderson (charismatically indispensable Brian Sheppard) welcomes us (house lights left on) with a lecture about the mysteries of the cosmos. Interestingly, in this year of “Oppenheimer,” there is another play after “Copenhagen” where Heisenberg and his uncertainty principle make a significant appearance.
Andy’s pregnant wife is Barbara, played by Bridge Street favorite Molly Parker Myers. She is a sculptor whose latest show may be an extraordinarily brilliant sensation or another embarrassing, ill-considered, neglected misfire. It’s always one or another in the arts. She visits her half-brother Don (stolid and finally moving Seth McNeill), who is an Episcopal priest at a crumbling church in the hills who dreams of turning a structure on the property into a Hospice for AIDS patients. Don’s former partner is Pauly (irrepressibly funny and sometimes exasperating) Timothy Dunn, who is attempting to teach and conduct a ragtag group of AIDS patients Mozart’s Requiem, which the composer did not complete before dying at the age of 35.
Also in the cast are Terry Sidell as Barbara and Don’s irascible mother Liz, a rebel anthropologist who studied tribes in Africa and now searches for similar traits and behaviors in West Coast gangs and Nico Ager who plays Andy’s colleague Mickey in exploring the galaxies for black holes similar to ours. Mickey, on the rebound after his girlfriend left him, makes a play for Sue who is Liz’s assistant played by the radiant Abby Burris, who was so good in “Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes” at BST. She has less to do here but is never less than compulsively watchable.
Finally, Steven Patterson, the co-founder of Bridge Street Theatre, stretches himself and plays the hard-ass bureaucrat Carl Conklin White wonderfully when he interferes with Andy and Mickey’s career-making discovery.
These seemingly ordinary people have large needs and wants, and they act on them in sometimes disturbing, incomprehensible ways. Their actions come out of these outsize desires, and just when we are ready to celebrate their success, in the next minute, we can be devastated by their frailty.
The play has a fun, idiosyncratic set design by the director and BST co-founder John Sowle, which finds a curved cyc upstage center that will receive scene-changing projections and flanked on two sides by mylar walls that are cantilevered up like garage doors and allow entrances and exits, changing the shape of the space. An innovative approach!
Eight characters on a Bridge Street stage is a lot, and Lanford Wilson’s plays are about a lot of things, but character comes first. There are events in this play-a medical procedure, a breakthrough revelation, and a shockingly violent outburst. Still, we are always attuned to the characters, and as in the best Wilson plays, the performance lives on the people cast. This play, which I caught in its first performance for the public, lives and sings and deepens our understanding of the human need to be created by others and in ourselves. The play expands and broadens like the galaxies surrounding us as I examine the particulars. “Sympathetic Magic” is being given an outstandingly sensitive, sympathetic, and loving production at Bridge Street… and best of all, it grows in stature the more you think about it.