Last time I saw the incomparable three-time Tony Award nominee Brian Murray was as the imperious Lady Bracknell a few years ago in Roundabout Theater’s The Importance of Being Earnest. In Simon Says, a new play written by Mat Schaffer and playing Off Broadway at the Lynn Redgrave Theater at Culture Project, Mr. Murray creates quite a different character as he transforms himself into the curmudgeonly Professor Williston, who has devoted his life to proving the existence of the soul.
Professor Williston and his protégé, James (Anthony J. Goes), a young man who possesses extraordinary psychic gifts, travel together doing presentations. James is the professor's “guinea pig” in scientifically exploring and quantifying the world of the paranormal, and he channels a being named Simon, whom Professor Williston met when he was conducting an intelligence study. Years later, James is yearning to have a normal life, attend college, and play more baseball, but Professor Williston is reluctant to let things change and have James squander his gift.
This is only one level of the story line of Simon Says. Anyone who has been exposed to some of the adages of the New Age movement such as "there are no accidents" or "we choose our parents, circumstances, life events etc. in order to work through something unresolved in a past life" will quickly recognize another story thread that reaches back 2,000 years. The multi-leveled storytelling begins when Annie (Vanessa Britting), a young widow, walks through the door of Professor Williston’s apartment for a reading, seeking answers about the death of her husband. Mr. Schaffer leads the audience through a storytelling maze of relationships that certainly illuminates the principle of synchronicity, a concept purported by Carl Jung who defined it as "meaningful coincidences". All three characters have long monologues as they tell their story; Mr. Schaffer drops bread crumbs along the way, so as these monologues unfold, the audience, if they’ve been listening carefully, will have little "aha" moments as they connect the dots. Janie Howland’s set design is a perfect jumble of Persian carpets, precariously stacked books and a mantel piece stuffed with various religious objects d’art, aptly creating an eccentric professor’s living room. Although pacing was slow during the first scene, director Miriam Cyr’s staging moves the story along and makes nice use of the intimate space.
Simon Says is inspired by two great personalities of the New Age movement, mystic Edgar Cayce and the entity Seth, channeled by Jane Roberts, and Mr. Schaffer intertwines moments from Cayce’s childhood into James’ story. Mr. Goes does a brilliant job of inhabiting numerous characters with distinct vocal and physical lives as he channels Simon; he also brings a “regular guy” quality to James. As Annie, Vanessa Britting reveals the agony of a person struggling with the painful question, “why do bad things happen to good people?” Brian Murray is a marvel, his presence on the stage riveting. In both small and dramatic moments, Mr. Murray, with head slightly askew, trembling fingertips, unstable steps and flashing blue eyes, inhabits an old man clinging to the past but with just enough curiosity to move into the present. After a four-year absence, he is back on a New York stage. Here’s hoping there are more roles waiting in the wings for Mr. Murray. He is a national treasure!