Josh Hamilton and Tate Donovan
in Medieval Play
(© Joan Marcus)
Josh Hamilton and Tate Donovan
in Medieval Play
(© Joan Marcus)
The first five minutes of Medieval Play, at Pershing Square Signature Center, are extremely funny. Unfortunately, playwright/director Kenneth Lonergan cannot sustain this level of hilarity for long, and what initially seems like a promising sketch is stretched out for another mind-numbing two-and-a-half hours.

Set in France and Italy in the 14th Century, the play centers on wandering knights Sir Ralph (Josh Hamilton) and Sir Alfred (Tate Donovan). Despite the seeming nobility of their profession, the knights depicted here are little more than gangs of roving marauders who prey upon the hapless villagers that they encounter.

Sir Ralph longs to find a higher purpose, and thinks his prayers are answered when Cardinal Robert of Geneva (John Pankow) puts them in the employ of the church. However, after a particularly bloody massacre of civilians in the small town of Cesena, Ralph and Alfred set out on their own -- with questionable results.

Lonergan embeds numerous historical facts into his satirical narrative, and the humor in the play depends partly upon the knowledge contemporary theatergoers have of the social and political changes to come that will alter the characters' way of life. However, while the play pointedly examines the religious and moral hypocrisy of the time in a way that invites comparisons to our own era, that message is conveyed early and doesn't change very much as the play goes on (and on).

Thankfully, the production features a fantastic cast, which helps to make the evening endurable. Hamilton underplays his lines in a way that helps to keep Sir Ralph a sympathetic and relatable character despite some of his actions. Donovan presents a brash yet charismatic façade that can be quite funny.

Pankow comes on strong in his primary role of Cardinal Robert. Meanwhile, Anthony Arkin lends an exasperated air to his portrayal of Bartolomeo Prignano, who later is appointed Pope Urban VI. The remainder of the company -- which also includes Heather Burns, Halley Feiffer, Kevin Geer, and C.J Wilson -- play their multiple parts with flair.

The design work is equally impressive, with Michael Krass' costumes evoking the period yet also appearing somewhat silly. Similarly, Walt Spangler's scenic design has a cartoonish quality that fits the production well.

Therefore, it is even more puzzling how such a well-acted and designed production could prove to be so tiresome. What's clear, though, is that the blame for that must rest fully on Lonergan's shoulders.