Bring up Edward Gorey and certain words come to mind — “eccentric” and “macabre” most frequently. The author and artist was odd, yes — for much of his life, he cohabited with as many as six cats at a time in an old sea captain’s home on Cape Cod, where he collected such miscellany as antique irons, salt-and-paper shakers, and old photographs. And his work is macabre, in a matter-of-fact way — a great many of his books include or dwell on death, with a whole one devoted to the expiries of children.
GOREY: The Secret Lives of Edward Gorey, a play currently on at Manhattan’s Sheen Center, seems to want to redeem its titular figure from these labels. Featuring three actors simultaneously playing Gorey at various stages of his life — in his mid 20s (Phil Gillen), in his mid 30s (Aidan Sank), and at 75 (Andrew Dawson) — the show presents Gorey as a closeted, mostly rebuffed gay man resigned to his solitude. In the process, it sells him short.
Written and directed by Travis Russ, the artistic director of the Life Jacket Theatre Company, GOREY is billed as a “fantasy memoir,” which means it combines fact with fiction. (Life Jacket’s mission is to “create new work based on real people, places, and events.”) This is, in theory, a perfectly acceptable creative liberty, but the decision becomes more complicated once you realize that the play is almost entirely biographical. The show weaves a loose tale of Gorey’s life: it takes the audience from his college years at Harvard — where he shared a room with Frank O’Hara and got rejected by The New Yorker — to his New York life in the 1960s and ’70s — when he attended every performance choreographed by George Balanchine for the New York City Ballet — to his older, wizened days living alone (with pets) on Cape Cod. The trajectory is true, but the details that get filled in aren’t necessarily, which raises questions for the viewer. Are we learning about the real Edward Gorey, the creator of over 100 thought-provoking books? If we’re not, what’s the purpose?
Some kind of answer comes through in the dialogue between the fictional Goreys, whose performances and chemistry are quite strong as they share the stage for almost the entire 75 minutes. They alternate between narrating to the audience and talking among themselves, with the older two teaching the younger one many a lesson, including about the confidence needed to brainstorm your way past writer’s block and the disappointing reality of relationships. The play harps on this latter point especially. It presents the author as infatuated with both O’Hara and Balanchine, and the youngest Gorey as unable to make sense of such unrequited longings. “Did something happen to me? When was it?” he asks the older two. “I want to be noticed by someone.” At another point, the oldest Gorey tells him wistfully, “We are married to our work. You’ll learn to be so busy you don’t even mind being alone.”
The takeaway is that Gorey either retreated to the company of himself because of rejection or was forced to sacrifice the pleasure of relationships in order to do his work. Both lessons are fairly glib. Could a man who called himself “apparently reasonably undersexed” not have preferred solitude? Russ seems to want Gorey to be regretfully closeted, but it’s not clear why. The play doesn’t employ this characterization to arrive at a deeper understanding of Gorey’s art — in fact, it foregoes discussion and use of his creative work to a disappointing degree. One of his drawings is animated in one lovely sequence, and there’s a delightful scene in which the actors call out a slew of his peculiar titles. Beyond that, Gorey’s uniquely dark and fascinating work is mostly left offstage.
“I think that who I am and what I write are two different things,” says one of the fictional Goreys, seeming to give the production’s approach his imprimatur. But the show also plays, twice, a recording of Gorey (the real one? it’s unclear) telling an interviewer, “I’d prefer not to disappear completely — I’d like to be read.” GOREY could stand to do a closer reading of its subject’s work as a way of giving him new life.
GOREY: The Secret Lives of Edward Gorey continues at the Sheen Center (18 Bleecker Street, Nolita, Manhattan) through January 14.