Three-time Tony nominee Brian Murray returns to the New York stage for the first time in four years as a retired professor of parapsychology who has put aside his own career to foster that of a young psychic from the time he was a teenager who is able to channel a spirit named Simon. However, the play belongs entirely to virile newcomer Anthony J. Goes who plays psychic James. The role is both vocally and physically demanding and he is totally convincing in a play that asks you suspend your disbelief.
Retired Professor Williston makes a living exhibiting the psychic gifts of James who he saved from incarceration when as a teenager James got into trouble with the law. Williston hopes to eventually publish a book about the existence of the soul after death from James’ channeling of Simon. However, James discovers that Williston has canceled paying his tuition for his first term at college and refuses to do any more seances. He goes as far as packing his duffle bag to head out.
That very evening they are expecting Shirley Casey, an elderly woman from Cincinnati, for their first reading at home. Instead, in walks Annie Roberts (Vanessa Britting), an attractive widow who is Casey’s niece. Although a high school science teacher (the last person you would expect to dabble in the paranormal), she is desperate to get in touch with her beloved husband who died two years ago in a freak accident just after Annie had gotten pregnant. When James discovers that he and Annie have something in common (they both had a grandmother named Arlette) he agrees to do the session. Not only does Simon come through but solves a mystery going back several thousands of years to Biblical times.
As James channeling Simon, Anthony J. Goes (who played the role in Boston) quivers, twitches, convulses, writhes, shudders, goes into a trace and falls to the floor. He plays several voices entirely differently so that we eventually recognize each character from the past that he brings to life. That he is believable in all this is to his credit. One thing the play does not explain: Goes appears to be a bit long in the tooth to be a man who is still playing baseball and about to start college for the first time.
Murray’s role as Williston which has him sitting in a chair most of the time as having recently returned home recuperating from a heart attack ought to be a piece of cake. However, as the elderly professor he seems tentative and hesitant rather than decisive and definite. His hold over James is vaguely sinister and one wonders if there is an unexpressed sexual component with which the play does not want to deal. Britting is sweet as the young widow but she is timid and retiring when she needs to be more forceful and energetic. As a scientist, she also seems too quick to accept the evidence of the paranormal.
Janie Howland’s sitting room setting is the perfect evocation of a professor’s lair: books piled everywhere including the fireplace, notes, magazines and boxes scattered on desk and table, a state of organized clutter. The lighting by John R. Malinowski is actually scarier that the play, making the various lamps seem to have a life of their own. Cat Stramer’s costumes define the characters as they see themselves. Director Myriam Cyr, who first staged Simon Says at the Boston Center for the Arts in 2015, appears to have kept out of the actors’ way and lets them move naturally around the untidy set.
Simon Says (through July 30, 2016)
The Culture Project
Lynn Redgrave Theater, 45 Bleecker Street at Lafayette Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.simonsaystheplay.com
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission