Plays that trade on the theme of Marilyn Monroe (Oates’s Miss Golden Dreams, Russell’s Blood Brothers) are rarely successful, though I can’t articulate why. Perhaps they mistake icon for import. Simon Bent’s adaptation of John Irving’s novel A Prayer for Owen Meany likewise fails to impress.
Despite some highly theatrical technical elements—a flying actor; basketballs dropping from the sky; and an overwhelming set piece in the third act that involves revealing the back wall of the theater, painted as the Stars and Stripes three stories high while Vietnam War dead are delivered home by forklift—Irving’s black comedy of faith leaves us wondering why this story had to be told. It is the story of diminutive Owen, a “boy with a wrecked voice” who has premonitions of his own death and a heroic sacrifice. In a setting of New England grotesques out of Thornton Wilder, and told in tightly cued overlapping scenes, preternaturally spiritual Owen takes on the role of a wise child. The trouble is that Irving, Bent, director Blake Robison, and actor Matthew Detmer have given Owen a comically squeaky voice more appropriate to Burr Tillstom and Fran Allison’s clown puppet Ollie. Owen’s pronouncements of wisdom against the tradition-bound clerics of his hometown are flat and trite; he comes off as a grating smartass more at home on Saturday morning television. Maybe the idea worked better in the book.
The play picks up some momentum in the third act with an unsettling visitation by Lenny Bruce and Owen goes off to war. Too little, too late.
- A Prayer for Owen Meany, novel by John Irving, adapted by Simon Bent, directed by Blake Robison, Round House Theatre, Bethesda, Maryland