Paul Hunter and Edward Petherbridge in My Perfect Mind, directed by Kathryn Hunter, at 59E59 Theaters.
Paul Hunter and Edward Petherbridge in My Perfect Mind, directed by Kathryn Hunter, at 59E59 Theaters.
(© Manuel Harlan)

Edward Petherbridge originated the role of Guildenstern in Tom Stoppard's 1967 play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. He has also originated the role of himself in an even more metatheatrical, Shakespeare-inspired piece called My Perfect Mind, now playing as part of the Brits Off Broadway series at 59E59 Theaters.

Petherbridge's extraordinary performance in this one-act two-hander is reason enough to flock to the theater, but the autobiographical nature of the story, together with a ridiculously funny performance by his costar, Paul Hunter, adds a fascinating dimension to this quite literally off-kilter story about Shakespeare, the craft of theater, and the regenerative power of the human mind.

The "off-kilter" aspect of the show comes, in part, from the handiwork of set designer Michael Vale, who has angled the stage, on which a chair and table sit, at a precarious incline. "It looks either slapdash or pretentious," says Petherbridge, speaking as his character Edward. "Slapdash and pretentiousness are two sides of the same coin. Discuss."

It's one of the many times he and Hunter directly address audience members. At the beginning of the play, a German doctor (Hunter) refers to them as students in a neurochemistry class. He then describes a patient who suffers from a delusion that he is an actor named Edward Petherbridge. The next moment, however, the Doctor says he is in fact not a doctor but an actor named Paul Hunter, and that we are watching a performance of My Perfect Mind. Cue a dialogue between the characters Paul and Edward (i.e., the actors Paul and Edward), and we have metatheatrics (theater that makes reference to itself as theater) at its best.

The play continues in a kaleidoscopic fashion back and forth in time as Hunter, in a seemingly countless roster of characters that includes Sir Laurence Olivier, interacts with Edward, who some years earlier suffered a debilitating stroke yet retained the entire role of King Lear in his head. With copious passages of Shakespeare performed by Petherbridge, and Hunter reading lines to him, My Perfect Mind (the title is a quote from Lear) delves into Petherbridge's memories with wit and humor, showing how he was able to triumph over his condition with the help of Shakespeare and return to the stage.

As directed by Kathryn Hunter (who cowrote the script with her two actors), My Perfect Mind avoids the sentimental and preachy. Rather, it depicts a journey as unique and quirky as the play itself. The show's production company, Told by an Idiot, revels in imaginative theatricality, as does director Hunter. In one dramatic scene, Petherbridge as King Lear creates (not half bad) portraits of Goneril and Regan while reciting a speech about their betrayal, then splatters their faces in a tempest of gray colors. Stepping out of Lear's character and back into his own, he makes an off-the-cuff remark about how that painting looks like a bad day at MoMA.

Petherbridge adroitly brings that sort of improvisational quality to the show, with recitations of Lear delivered so naturally he seems to make them up on the fly. It's one of the charms of this fragmented, hilarious, strangely lucid memory play about an actor performing a play about performing another play in his mind for a real (or imaginary) audience. With all its twists, turns, and contortions, My Perfect Mind is a delightfully entertaining brainteaser.