“I loathe that word ‘nice,’” Hallie says, and so apparently do both her parents; all three could not be more unlikeable in the first 100 minutes of the 110-minute play “The Medievalists,” written by Bill Corbett, best-known as the comedic writer and performer for “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” This latest starry Zoom reading by Play-PerView runs on demand only through September 22.
Arthur (James Urbaniak) is a historian of the Middle Ages who pedantically lectures and belittles his assistant Brad (Jason Ritter.) Arthur has an assistant because, we soon learn, the novels he wrote based on his knowledge of medieval history, are being turned into a pulpy miniseries, and he’s been on the set in the middle of the Mojave Desert. He’s no longer on the set; he’s in a luxury hotel suite, and he’s in trouble. The reasons that he is in trouble emerge with the arrival first of Hallie (Rhea Seehorn), who barks at both Arthur and Brad; and then of Madelyn (Paget Brewster), who summarily kicks Brad out of the suite and berates Arthur in an over-the-top hostile, remarkably long rant (kudos for Brewster for her breath control.) Through it all, oddly, Arthur is obviously delighted to see her.
Arthur has been banned from the series set because he’s been a general nuisance, and more specifically because the young woman who stars in it complained that he’s been harassing her. He’s been drinking, and he’s about to be thrown out of the hotel. And, if all that isn’t enough, he called up Hallie the night before, and said he was planning to kill himself.
So Hallie, who is his daughter, drove nine hours to the middle of the Mojave Desert, and told Madelyn, who is Hallie’s mother, and Madelyn too made her way to the hotel suite, to fix things.
It’s possible I’m not supposed to tell you all this. The information is parceled out slowly amid the invective. it took a long time for us to learn even that Madelyn and Arthur are married, although they’ve been separated for many years. But I do this as a service to the play, because, while their nastiness is initially amusing, these characters could easily wear out their welcome before you realize that the play is going somewhere. And it does get somewhere in the last ten minutes – somewhere subtly touching and insightful, which redeemed the play for me.
I won’t reveal the specifics, but it has to do with history. “I hate history. There’s only NOW,” Madelyn says at one point. But of course that is not true – not for this family, and not for anybody.
The production itself feels like something of a history lesson. Live, in-person theater is becoming my norm (the three shows I saw before this one were in person, as are the next three coming up), so an unenhanced Zoom reading like “The Medievalists” requires an adjustment that wasn’t necessary for me a month ago. Directed by Casey Stangl, all four performers are pros – with Ritter especially and hilariously expressive — but the adjustment extended to the casting, primarily because the actress portraying the mother is only three years older than the one playing her daughter.
Play-PerView has been a terrific source of theater since the pandemic began (it’s easy to consider producer Jeremy Wein a wunderkind — still in his early 20’s, and working wonders.) It deserves continued life; there remains a place (a need!) for such accessible theater. But, Jeremy, you really should consider adding subtitles, which would make Play-PerView even more accessible. Here’s the page on Vimeo about adding subtitles and captions.