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Theatre in Review: Round Table (59E59)

Liba Vaynberg, Craig Wesley Divino. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

The playwright Liba Vaynberg can fairly be described as a mistress of the unexpected. For one thing, she has in Round Table written a romantic comedy, a genre that currently seems as extinct as the dodo. For another, she opens by trotting out her leading man, Zach, and having him admit to us, straight up, that he has been diagnosed with cancer. Without comment, she dispatches him to the dating scene, where he immediately gets together with Laura, a would-be novelist who makes a living grinding out bodice-rippers under a pseudonym. ("Let's just say Pamela Wolfstein died three years ago, and I was her financially savvy family lawyer's first call," she says, alluding to that strange publishing phenomenon in which deceased authors apparently keep issuing new works.) As it happens, Zach has parlayed his PhD in medieval literature into a career as a technical consultant on films; he also has a part-time gig as a writer on Round Table, a Game of Thrones-style video phenomenon. Laura, who doesn't impress easily, is stunned, struggling not to probe him for a season's worth of plot spoilers.

Having established her potential lovers as professional purveyors of romantic myths -- and allowing the potentially explosive news of Zach's illness to remain a secret -- Vaynberg enmeshes her characters in a LARP (live action role-playing) game, populated by characters from the Camelot legend. (These scenes, played thoroughly straight, are among the most amusing, with everyone rising to the occasion and emoting away in their best approved RADA manner.) From here on in, Round Table artfully plays its reality-versus-fantasy games, ricocheting between Zach and Laura's blossoming romance and amusingly bombastic Arthurian melodrama, while working up real suspense as one waits for the truth about Zach to come out. It's hard to overestimate the high-wire act that Vaynberg has assigned herself -- combining witty, stylish romantic sparring with literary satire and a tragic development that, in the wrong hands, could have become a shameless bid for tears. But Vaynberg and her director, Geordie Broadwater, handle the material with a naturally light touch, overstating nothing and allowing these wayward lovers to win us over.

Furthermore, everyone plays with a natural delicacy; I'd love to see any of them tackle a vintage Broadway high comedy. Vaynberg, who also plays Laura, offers an entertaining catalog of romance novel tropes ("He unlaced her corset and she melted into his arms") and she also offers a canny analysis of Moby-Dick: When Zach objects to her categorization of Melville's novel as a love story, adding, "Pretty sure it's about a whale. And a bunch of guys looking for it," she replies, "By 'it,' do you mean the whale, masculinity, or each other?" (This may be the moment where they fall for each other.) She is especially fun when, as a rookie in the LARP world, she struggles to make sense of the rules of engagement, constantly falling out of character and infuriating the others. The role of Zach is a perilous one -- at any given moment, he could come off as selfish or exploitative -- but Craig Wesley Divino makes him irresistibly likable, effortlessly conveying his heartbreaking desire for one last shot at romance before it's all over. They form a partnership that is heartful and rueful, written and performed with surprising tact and restraint.

The stars have fine support from Karl Gregory, as Zach's brother, Kay, an officious EMT who prefers bossing around his ailing sibling to examining his own personal problems. The actor has a marvelous bit that involves delivering a clipped phone message for Zach, made up mostly of sentence fragments, which conveys a lifetime's worth of love, worry, and exasperation. Sharina Martin makes an especially strong impression as a bartender by day who deeply immerses herself in the role of Morgan Le Fay, complete with impeccable British accent. Matthew Bovee amuses as a rather effeminate tax attorney who channels his inner Benedict Cumberbatch when playing the villainous Mordred.

The production, in 59E59's tiny Theater C, is light on production values, with the exception of Johanna Pan's movie-ready medieval wear; the emphasis here is on the expertly stylized performances and cunningly structured script, which manages to import whole sections of Tennyson's "The Gate of Camelot" into the action. A gratifyingly touching light entertainment, Round Table should serve as gilt-edged calling card for some very talented young artists. --David Barbour

(7 October 2019)

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