The Gigli Concert

By Tom Murphy
Directed by Carmel O'Reilly
Sugan, At the Double Edge Theatre, Allston, May 1996

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

"The Gigli Concert" is a recent -- 1991-- play by Tom Murphy, the well-known Irish playwright whose 1968 epic masterpiece "Famine" was introduced to Boston by Sugan Theatre last season. Director Carmel O'Reilly and her company are giving Murphy's difficult script a meticulous and loving production.

"The Gigli Concert" is difficult in a number of ways. First, it is packed with allusion: philosophical allusion, from Plato to Kierkegaard; political allusion, which assumes a much more detailed knowledge of Irish history, economics, and sociology -- "the criminal kind of would-be pygmy Napoleons we have at the top, here" -- than any American audience is likely to possess; and musical allusion, specifically to the work of Beniamino Gigli, a celebrated operatic tenor of the early part of this century . Twelve of Gigli's recorded arias are played during the action, part of a painstaking sound score by Hugh O'Donovan, and the mystery of their content and context adds to the general sense that a great many more important matters are being brought up than the audience has the time or background to appreciate. But this isn't necessarily a flaw: it is a version of the dilemma that the characters are in, too.

The first character is one JWP King, (Robert Bonotto) a transplanted English psychologist who is discovered at nearly noon asleep on the sofa in his run down office. The second character (Aidan Parkinson) is a successful businessman who refuses to give his name, listed in the program as "The Irish Man". This fifty-one year old man is a member of the Irish New Class who made their fortunes during the building boom of the eighties, and he comes to King's office and to demand treatment.

The Irish Man has fixated on Gigli, playing his records over and over. He has chosen King, a wildly unsuccessful therapist who uses the methods of an obscure branch of psychotherapy called Dynamatology, to use Dynamatological wizardry to raise him from despair and make it possible for him to sing like Gigli. The businessman claims that he had musical talent as a child, although when he narrates his early life his own memories are inextricably intertwined with the biographical details of Gigli's childhood. But his adult life has been a ruthless struggle to build up his contracting business in a society where the deck is stacked against people like him, uneducated Catholics from the working class. He has had no time for the artistic and sensitive side of his nature. Now he is having a breakdown: "The itinerants on my property -- I went out to kill them. My wife is perplexed. She is so good.... jail, hospital mean nothing to me." The Irish Man has decided he must sing, sing one concert of Gigli's repertoire. "Singing is the only possible way to tell people who you are."

King, like the Irish Man, is a character at the end of his tether. He has been holed up in this dingy office (designed by Mark Spence) for six years, having lost wife, home, and social identity some time in the unspecified past. He lives in the office -- how? -- is the British dole so generous that a man can survive for six years without an income?-- waiting for clients to come to him, but none do. He has given up belief in his own curative power. "I am a charlatan and a quack", he says. Meantime, King drinks, and is obsessively in love with "an Irish colleen, an ordinary housewife, a married woman who is faithful to her husband", named Helen. But he also has a mistress, Mona, (Wendy Klug) another "ordinary" married woman, who loves him without demanding that he give her more than sexual attention and a sympathetic ear.

Both men are characters of such complexity, such a mixture of self-analysis and self-deception, and their lines are so witty, that following the twists and turns of their confrontations and revelations becomes a mixture of delight and exhausting effort. If that weren't enough of a challenge, there is a mythological layer to the play also: definitely, some Faustian dealings are going on, what with Helen and transformative magic and lines such as "...self-consciousness which is guilt which is Original Sin" and "God created the world in order to create himself" and "'I am who I am' is 'I am who I may be'". But which character is Faustus, and which Mephistopheles? Toward the end, the two men seem to change obsessions. The Gigli Concert, when it occurs, comes in a surprising form.

The play is long, almost three hours, and exhausting -- at least for audience. The actors are undaunted, however. Each new acting challenge seems to summon forth a fresh burst of energy and insight, as they constantly redefine their relationship to each other as they redefine their identities: "It's rest for me to take trouble for a friend", one says in the last scene. O'Reilly and her actors and crew have taken immense trouble to put Murphy's play on stage in Boston, in all its brilliant complexity. Let's hope it proves to be rest for them, because it is a rare treat for the discerning.