In her new play Helen, a takeoff on Euripides, Ellen McLaughlin imagines that the mythic Helen--she of "the face that launched a thousand ships"--didn't actually abandon her husband to go with Paris to Troy but was instead whisked away and imprisoned in an Egyptian hotel room by the goddess Hera, who fashioned a replica of Helen to accompany Paris. Unbeknownst to them, it is for the sake of the replica, not the real Helen, that Meneleus and the Greek army battle the Trojans. With both armies oblivious to this trick of the gods, Helen waits for the war to end and for Meneleus to discover the truth, find her, and bring her home.
McLaughlin's notion isn't a terrible one. The 10-year Trojan bloodbath was supposedly fought over one woman, but everyone who studied this stuff in high school knows it wasn't the woman herself but the idea of her that caused the conflict. McLaughlin is simply telling the story in more literal terms: Helen and The Idea of Helen are two separate entities. So, what does the real Helen do while the rest of the world kills itself over her doppelganger? And which one of them will win out in the end?
Unfortunately, McLaughlin doesn't shed any new light on the subject, and her central theme is belabored. This lack of insight might be forgiven if the play were more entertaining, but watching even the most beautiful woman in the world looking bored and moaning about her tragic situation quickly grows tiresome. While her visitors burst in with all the gusto of Dickens' Christmas ghosts, the first (Io) brings confusion and the second (Athena) mere diversion, while the third (Meneleus) offers nothing. Io, in particular, seems superfluous to the play, though Joanna Day plays her valiantly.
Donna Murphy looks stunning as Helen, but she can do little with what McLaughlin has written for her. As dull as the play is when Helen is raging at her cursed fate, even worse are the sections where she languishes like a bored housewife, making wry comments about Meneleus' lackluster performance in bed or pointless references to her mythological contemporaries. (Because McLaughlin doesn't keep her heroine stuck in her own time, the hotel suite is equipped with an elevator and a television set; this allows Helen to stretch out on the bed and flip channels, complaining about Egyptian TV ("The Make Your Own Mummy Show"?) and ruminating on the uselessness of the Weather Channel.
For his luxurious hotel suite set, set designer Michael Yeargan should get star billing (as should the on-stage elevator, which has a personality all its own). And costume designer Susan Hilferty comes up with some understated and inventive ways of clothing Athena and Io, not to mention Helen's lovely dresses. But the set can't save the day, and Tony Kushner's direction doesn't do much to improve the troubled script; he seems, in fact, to drag it out a little longer than necessary, though he does help the excellent cast to shine as much as possible.
Most of Helen vacillates between wearisome monologue and Greek sitcom, but there is the occasional spark of excitement. With the sheer force of her personality, Phylicia Rashad injects life into Athena and into the play; McLaughlin finally touches on something interesting in this character's speeches, speculating on the gods' alternating respect for and animosity towards for the human race. But the high point of the production is reached when Meneleus, intense and pitiable as played by the amazing Denis O'Hare, returns and must confront the hard fact that he and his men have been fighting for nothing. When he and Helen are face to face, the play finally becomes dramatic--for a moment, electric. But the evening on the whole is like the endless monologues that Marian Seldes, as an Egyptian servant, delivers when Helen bids her to "tell me a story": long, hypnotic, at times captivating, yet ultimately sleep-inducing.