Special to Arts Weekend
Judd Hirsch was the main attraction during the buildup to Dorset Theatre Festival's world premiere of Pulitzer and Tony-winning playwright Michael Cristofer's new play, "The Whore and Mr. Moore." So much so that Dorset Playhouse was packed on a preview night -- something that hasn't happened much this past decade until the arrival of third-year artistic director Dina Janis.
But while stars get attention, playwrights do most of the bleeding. Just before the show, Cristofer grabbed a folding chair and plopped himself in the aisle next to me, note card and pencil in hand, ready to see his creation, indeed, his own soul, bared on its maiden voyage.
The play is a Shavian-Chekovian take on an old hit, "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir." It follows an older playwright, Mr. Moore (Judd Hirsch) who comes to an old sea captain's home in coastal Maine with a real estate agent, Figgy (Betsy Aidem), and tries to write a play.
Once there, he encounters the ghost of the former ‘madame' of the home, Maggie (Janet Zarish), who ran a brothel a century prior. The characters then investigate art, death, love and what makes life meaningful.
Directed by Paul Mullins, the play's humor is understated, with just enough to charm casual audiences, and plenty of highbrow literary references to please the cognoscenti. Somewhere, no doubt, T.S. Eliot is smiling.
If Cristofer can ever reunite this cast, he'll be very fortunate. Headliner Hirsch was everything expected: A brooding, sarcastic and resigned artist who sees paid work as the crowning insult to his mediocre career. His insistence on not ending sentences in prepositions is a slick device Cristofer gave Hirsch to draw laughs, as well as convey a dedication to the written word that has nonetheless betrayed Mr. Moore.
It's difficult to decide who stole the show, Aidem or Zarish. The former took on wallflower Figgy, yet still managed to exude subtle sensuality in her dumb-as-a-fox ways. And her "in-and-out of a half-dozen personalities" at the clap of Hirsch's directorial hand was a masterful display of acting diversity.
Zarish had the vamp thing going in droves, but then seduced us not with a quite visible cleavage, but rather her intellectual savvy. Maggie's soliloquy on "woman as hunter" was as brilliantly executed as Olivier, though in the more energetic context of Cristofer's desire.
So we come full circle back to Cristofer, which is where the commentary must focus. Ever since his Dorset appearance in the lead role of Theresa Rebeck's new play, "The Novelist," it has become apparent this man loves the irony of introspection. It would have been impossible for Aidem or Zarish to pull off each of their multifaceted personas without it.
But more than anything, Cristofer was in a nonstop dialogue with his own reflection. He exposed the worst fears of an aging artist, and reminded us that mining the echo chamber, as well as an unfinished page on the typewriter, can yield fool's gold.
Narelle Sisson's set, complete with stairway to heaven, in color and curve evoked an ancient Greek amphitheater, and in height and slope the balconies of Shakespeare's Globe. Lights by Michael Giannitti were haunting in their excellence. Sound by Jill BC DuBoff and Anthony Mattana had the audience lurching. Costumes by Barbara A. Bell nicely ranged from utilitarian to fanciful.
Two things struck me as I left Dorset Playhouse. One was the crowd's buzz after its standing ovation -- on preview night at that. This is where Janis' alliance with stage giants such as Rebeck and Cristofer is paying off. To get Judd Hirsch at Dorset is a coup, and the ground work was painstaking. Yet to start pulling this off in her third season? Ms. Janis deserves a curtain call of her own.
More importantly, though, I felt I knew Michael Cristofer not as an artist, but as a close friend; Mr. Moore's fears became my own. For those seeking the play within the play, they would have found its creator naked, bleeding, but passing along a vital message of life -- phrased, as any astute playwright would, in a question left only for us to answer: Given the chance, how would you write your own ending?
Telly Halkias can be contacted at email@example.com.
"The Whore and Mr. Moore" runs through Aug. 11 at Dorset Theatre Festival. For tickets and information call 802-867-2223 or visit www.dorsettheatrefestival.org.