Cora Bisset and Matthew Pidgeon in "Midsummer" (photo by Chester Higgins)

Cora Bisset and Matthew Pidgeon in “Midsummer” (photo by Chester Higgins)

Midsummer [A Play With Songs], a play by Scottish playwright David Greig that is making its New York debut at the Clurman Theatre on 42nd street, is widely agreed to be a rom com. Its salient feature is a loveless man and a loveless woman who are thrown together by chance, torn apart by social convention, and reunited by Love’s cosmic flux. What more needs be said? Certain generic applications appear to be cut and pasted into the plot to lend the story the standard, twitterpated, magical realist Hollywood feel: The male protagonist is a low-level gangster with an ironically appropriate name; the female protagonist is a divorce lawyer who is ironically committing adultery with a married man; there is a wedding, a “lost” night of sex and substance abuse, and a soulful reckoning in the rain at Salisbury Crags, a popular lover’s lookout / suicide spot in Edinburgh.

You know how it’s going to end, so if that’s not your bag, if you don’t enjoy a classic tale well told, then read no further. In these situations the goodness of a play isn’t in its surface features, but in how the material is acted. Fortunately, Midsummer has two madly talented actors and a fabulously talented writer / director, who bring the oldest tale ever told to life in a new and refreshing way. It reminds me of a scene in the movie In The Soup (also a rom com), in which the auteur filmmaker says to his shady producer that he hates romantic comedies because they are predictable, to which the producer responds, “when you say ‘I love you,’ and you mean it, it’s always like the first time.” Watching Midsummer has the ability to make you feel like you’re watching a rom com again, for the first time.

Your average critic doesn’t see the much older comedy lurking beneath the rom com façade. Midsummer is set on the summer solstice, and if you have ever been in Edinburgh on that day, you know that the sun rises at 4:30 a.m. and sets after 10 p.m.. There is no proper night, only a gloaming, violet sky during the evening hours. It’s a feast day, a festival day, when in auld lang syne peoples of the British Isles would gather in front of their local cathedral doors and watch religious plays about the fall of Satan, Adam and Eve, Noah and his wife, and other great Bible stories from sunup to sundown. Bonfires burned throughout the night in celebration of the apogee of summer. In generic terms, summer is the season of comedy, just as winter is the season of tragedy.

Another comedy, ancient as the Medieval midsummer festival, set close to the spring equinox of the year 1300, captures Mr. Grieg’s deeper philosophical ambitions. In that work, a man says he is Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita (“halfway along our life’s path”), or 35 years-old, half of the average age given to men in the 90th Psalm. The road that leads from childhood up to the peak of manhood will be downhill from here until he reaches his final resting place. Scared out of his wits by this prospect, he undertakes a three day journey to find his celestial lover Beatrice, (“the blessed woman”), who will redeem him from the mistakes he made as a young man.

In Midsummer Medium Bob got his gangster nickname because he’s such an average, nondescript guy. But that also means he is an Everyman, defined as a man by the brute fact of his mortality. And Bob is very worried about his mortality, or rather, his lost sense of immortality. Today, June 21st 2006, is Bob’s 35th birthday. In 1986, when Bob was 15, he was on top of the world — the coolest cat in school, in a band, a ladykiller. The world was all unknown, waiting to be mapped, explored and relished. But like your average guy, Bob lacked the motivation or opportunity to seize that brass ring. Instead he led an average life that, as sure as day leads to night, leads to an average death. Helena, the female protagonist, seems to have wanted a less traditional life, not marrying or having children. But her success at 35 turns out to be just as average as Bob’s lack of success. At the top of life’s hill, all she can see is the winding path to the valley of death. When these two find each other, they (re)discover over three days and nights that you have to go through Hell to get to Heaven.

The best parts of Midsummer are not the sight gags, sex jokes, or the elaborately witty language. Those are just foils to set off Bob and Helena’s discovery of a new hope, the realization that change and redemption are always possible if you open your heart to Love. Though the dramatic convention requires “love” be understood as a passionate, physical, pubescent phenomenon, Mr. Greig shows us that real love is an adult, ever maturing and deepening phenomenon that endures beyond the ephemeral flower of youth. He could not make his point if Matthew Pidgeon as Bob didn’t vacillate so perfectly between puerile gloom and goofy candor, or if Cora Bissett didn’t cleverly subvert the tired ironic poses of today’s privileged, professional woman. And as the other critics have pointed out, the staging and tempo are perfect. But perfect execution isn’t all there is to Midsummer. The play soars because it turns rom com conventions on their heads by reminding us that love — real love — is always new.

Through January 27th

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