But the couple’s relationship turns out to be in deep trouble. Carl is plagued by a taunting tormentor that only he (and the audience) can see. Thelonious (Sly Augustus) is a figure in a black mask who taunts Carl about his inadequacies and seems intent on helping to cause the marriage to crumble. In Welch’s script, Thelonious is described as an “Enlightened State of Mind.” But on the stage, he comes off as a talkative troll—a prancing, dancing Rumpelstiltskin-like figure who delights in ridiculing Carl for, among other things, his reputedly small penis. Before long, Sandy becomes fed up with her husband and his invisible persecutor. She and the baby leave the sylvan setting without Carl.
The play (which has the tag “a syncopated comedy about the American Dream”) becomes more complicated with the arrival of a pompous, randy professor of psychology, Dr. Lawrence (David F. Slone, Esq.), and his three female students/acolytes (Courtney Torres, Xiren Wang, Jaine Ye). As a research team, they study the distressed Carl and his invisible nemesis, taking fieldnotes. It’s as if Carl is a specimen of some previously undiscovered species of Catskills butterfly.
The second half of the play takes place twelve years later—in the present, at the porch of Sandy’s home. We’re brought up to speed on what’s transpired for the characters in the intervening years. Has Carl been able to rid himself of Thelonious once and for all? Did his marriage with Sandy end for good? And have the professor’s students managed to break away from the lascivious prof?
Welch and the play’s director, Jonathan Weber, seem to be going for a sort of Ionesco-esque ambience here. The story unfolds in a broadly played, cartoonish way. Occasionally, a satirical jab at ivory-tower academics will land, thanks to Welch’s depiction of the shallow and creepy professor, who—as played by the bearded Slone—looks like he just stepped out of a daguerrotype. But, generally speaking, this comedy is rambling, unwieldy and not especially funny. (Few audience laughs were audible during the performance under review.) In the last stretches of the play, a meta element is introduced, with the characters talking about having entered “the epilogue” stage of the story. Once we’ve stumbled into this self-referential territory, it becomes even harder to engage in any real way with the play.
The actors’ performances are adequate, though Augustus speaks too quickly and swallows many of his words. Moses and Slone seem to have come closest to finding an acting approach that fits what Welch was going for: they strike a good balance between realism and caricature.
The actors’ stage movements frequently seem aimless. Some balletic turns from the trio of students provide memorable moments. But James Savage’s fight staging comes off looking more like a painstakingly choreographed routine than actual scuffling.
Mark Marcante and Lytza R. Colon’s set design for the Catskills locale has pleasing and slightly surrealistic elements. The tufts of grass growing up at the roots of the tall, menorah-like trees are an especially nice touch. Alexander Bartenieff’s lighting design gets the job done in an unobtrusive way. No costume designer is credited, but—again—Slone creates a terrific visual image.
One delicate question raised by the production has to do with the casting of a black actor as Thelonious. Is this meant to have thematic significance or not? Of course, the character’s name is a reference to African-American jazz musician Thelonious Monk, who is also referenced in the script. And there are some (but not many) other clues—including a reference to Scott Joplin—that suggest an intended racial component to the story. In the end, though, who knows? Maybe what we’ve got here is simple colorblind casting.
A more important query, perhaps, is whether Welch truly intends Thelonious to be a catalyst for enlightenment who, by creating chaos, can shepherd a schlub like Carl to a higher destiny or whether he is just a knavish imp who likes to stir up domestic trouble. Perhaps additional drafts of this script will result in a more satisfying answer to that question.
Thelonious! (through March 3, 2019)
Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-254-1109 or visit http://www.Smarttix.com
Running time: 70 minutes with no intermission