Melinda Lopez, Seth Fisher, and Mimi Lieber in Persephone
(© T. Charles Erickson)
Melinda Lopez, Seth Fisher, and Mimi Lieber in Persephone
(© T. Charles Erickson)
You'd be hard pressed to picture a play more unbalanced than Noah Haidle's Persephone, which is getting its world premiere at the Huntington Theater Company. While, there's nothing audiences like more than to veer between tears and laughter, in the show's modern-day second act, Haidle leaves humor far, far behind with unappealing results.

The show's central figure is a statue of Demeter, the goddess whose daughter, Persephone, is banished to Hades half the year (a story that the ancient Greeks fabricated to explain winter.) In the first act, set in 1507 Florence, Demeter (the wonderfully warm-voiced Melinda Lopez), though pretty much immobilized, participates rapturously in her own creation: she's in love with her young sculptor. Fast-forward five centuries to New York City, and act two finds her disprized, alone, and subject to all the hideous affronts of modern life, not the least of which is a continual rain of pigeon droppings.

The tone of the two acts couldn't be more disparate. Act one is written in the vein of Shakespeare in Love and other modern glosses on our forebears which encourage us to imagine them as contemporaries, sharing a common emotional language, at the very least, as well as existential concerns.

Here, Giuseppe (Seth Fisher, who himself could have modeled for Michelangelo) starts out a true artist, focusing purely on Demeter while doing his best to resist the lures of fame and licentiousness. His model, Celia (the marvelous and limber Mimi Lieber), is every awful art groupie you've every encountered, full of pithy pronouncements and rabidly on the make. Giuseppe's struggle just to get her to shut up -- and keep her clothes on -- is so delightful that you wish you could watch them forever; and Demeter's reactions -- ranging from "Slut!" to a simulated hairball -- add spice to the proceedings.

It's only with the advent of patron Alfonso that the shtick gets a bit too broad -- which is no fault of actor Jeremiah Kissel, who fills out the role robustly. (He also appears as a talking mouse.) However, toward the end of act one, the playwright makes an abrupt U-turn into tragedy and never looks back. That reversal never quite seems earned; it's the dramatic equivalent of bait-and-switch.

Haidle, who made a splash with Mr. Marmalade, is only 27 and the premise of the play -- what if statues could feel -- is essentially childish (in the nonderogatory sense of the word). Is that why act one feels so much richer? It's not just that comedy is easier to take; Haidle invests so much more imagination in this section that its suppositions seem fresh and new.

Act two, however, is not just rife with repetition -- the set-in-stone Demeter keeps wishing she could avert her eyes and rest -- it's also the kind of exercise in weltshmertz that appeals to successive generations of adolescents. Moreover, the sketches in this gallery of quick-change portraits are so caricatured that it's hard to see the appeal -- for the actors or for the audience. The deus-ex-machina finale may serve as a reminder of set designer David Korins' remarkable gifts -- his Florentine studio shows a master's eye -- but this sudden save seems to come out of nowhere.

Given Haidle's ascending star, this play is bound to start making the regional theater rounds. It would be great, however, if there were time to consider some tweaking of the second act before the next production. Demeter, of course, has all the time in the world. That's her tragedy -- but it's one not done full justice yet by Haidle.