Oksana Lada in Pentecost(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Oksana Lada in Pentecost
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
If Tony Kushner's Angels in America is arguably the best American play of the 1990s, David Edgar's Pentecost is likely the outstanding British work of the same decade. It shares the breathtaking ambition as Kushner's masterwork. For its power and scope, instantly apparent at its 1994 London debut, it won the 1995 Evening Standard Award as Best Play. Yet, although Edgar's work was given its American premiere by Stan Wojewodski, Jr. at Yale Repertory Theatre and has been presented by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the Berkeley Repertory, and San Diego's Old Globe, it has taken the jaw-dropping drama 11 years to reach New York.

That local debut has come thanks to The Barrow Group, whose directors figured that something on the scale of Pentecost would be a startling way to inaugurate their new 99-seat auditorium. The enterprising company deserves to be applauded for such a daring selection. More importantly, they must be supported for it, since -- to paraphrase a Star Trek phrase that Edgar himself appropriates -- they've gone where no Manhattan man or woman has gone before. And they may not recoup their investment, since they've reportedly spent $170,000 on a play that requires Sensurround-like efforts from (among others) set designer Markas Henry, lighting designer Robert Cangemi, sound designer Stefano Zazzera, and costume designer Moe Schell.

The reasons why producers have shied away from Pentecost like agnostics at a born-again revival meeting are numerous -- and understandable, considering current theater economics. To begin with, the play, boasts 30 speaking parts (for which the Barrow crowd uses 19 actors). That's enough to discourage most producers looking to fill box-office tills. Furthermore, there's nothing immediately sexy about the two-act, nearly three-hour piece, which is set in an unspecified Eastern European country and concerns art history and immigrant politics.

There is, however, one overriding reason to forge on with Pentecost: The play's a work of genius. It's possibly the best outpouring so far from a dramatist/political activist whose other works include The Jail Diary of Albie Sachs and a famous adaptation of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. Into Pentecost Edgar has profligately poured ideas about homeland and deracination, the importance of art and the tyranny of art historians, the fact that differences between languages work against beneficial communication, and the internal friction that impedes progress within borders. Pentecost is a fervent cry for global community.

Here's the intriguing setup: Gabriella Pecs (Oksana Lada), a curator in a recently democratized country, has uncovered a church fresco that she thinks pre-dates Giotto in its introduction of perspective. Having invited British scholar Oliver Davenport (Marc Aden Gray) to corroborate her finding, she finds herself plunged into church politics because ownership of the church is in dispute. American expert and belligerent realist Leo Katz (Stephen Singer) arrives at the invitation of Father Sergei Bojovic (Peter Vouras) to dispute Pecs' conclusion and thus stop the fresco's removal to a museum, where it could become a valuable tourist attraction. Amid the mounting hostilities, a group of refugees led by a tough Palestinian called Yasmin (Alysia Reiner) invades the church, takes the occupants hostage, and demands sanctuary in various countries for every one of their number. Whether the fresco is worth the endangerment of lives, whether it will survive, and whether the hostages -- Pecs and Davenport having fallen for each other -- will escape with their lives provides nifty suspense.

Part of what distinguishes Pentecost is its adherence to Robert Browning's advice about letting reach exceed grasp. While it's an amazing theatrical document, as ripe with thought as a California orange tree is with fruit, it's not perfect. There are segments that could stand editing and threaten to turn the second act, in particular, into a debilitating stage wait. That's when Edgar, scanting the Pecs-Davenport development, indulges in a lengthy digression on storytelling by the captives and their captors; he makes his points about language and universal myths clear long before he moves on.

Anjali Bhimani, Oksana Lada, Mousa Kraish, and Stephen Singerin Pentecost(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Anjali Bhimani, Oksana Lada, Mousa Kraish, and Stephen Singer
in Pentecost
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
But it's not only the playwright who's taken up Browning's dictum. So, possibly, has the Barrow Group in producing the work and Seth Barrish in directing it. In their bold but constricting circumstances, the company has pulled off a more than acceptable production but not a transcendent one. Watching the actors approach their roles with a mixture of timidity and intrepidity, one suspects that many of them are somewhat wary of the demanding task that they've collectively taken on.

Although some of the principals evidence this holding back, Singer as Katz and Reiner as Yasmin definitely do not, which makes their caustic exchanges among the play's most incendiary moments. Gray as Davenport and Lada as Gabriella Pecs also perform with grace. Director Barrish hasn't found all of the play's rhythms; perhaps he establishes a primarily slow pace because he wants to guarantee that all is heard and understood. This often happens when talky English plays land here (cf. the current Democracy). Of course, the longer the troupe plays the play, the more comfortable with it they are likely to become.

Few playwrights in literary history -- Kushner being a recent exception -- share Edgar's enviable audacity, and The Barrow Group is concomitantly audacious. It's okay for Pentecost to have sneaked into town. If it also sneaks out, that would be a major shame.