Straddling a fine line between sophomoric romp and goofy comedy, the Collective Project‘s “The Great McAnigan” depicts a young man dreaming about being a poet, despite the fact that it appears not to be his calling. The world premiere of the play, written by Dave Lauby and directed by Sean Haley, is running through June 22 in the Rodriguez Room at the Goat Farm Arts Center.
In Somersby in the mid-1800s, young Andrew McAnigan (Weston Manders, a lanky actor who plays the character from infant in diapers to adulthood) proves to be gifted in almost everything. He can diagnose in seconds a sickly woman whom doctors can’t remedy. He can help his mother Lucy (Christen Orr) knit. Heck, he can even shear sheep.
Also gifted in all academic areas, he is informed by his headmaster (Brandon Partrick) that he has a choice of attending Oxford or Cambridge on a scholarship. His working-class family, including father Fergus (Matt Bartholomew), eagerly awaits his decision on where he’ll go, while a local priest hopes Andrew will instead join the clergy. But when the big moment arrives, he bursts the community’s bubble by deciding to become a poet, inspired by a statue he has seen of Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
Moving to London and beginning his “career,” he stands in the street reciting his verse. But it’s so bad, so crude, that people walk away. Even Andrew’s new wife, Emily (Blaire Hillman), can’t pretend to like it, telling him that he has become well known for the wrong reason and enlisting her parents to give her husband a “real” job. There lies the rub: does he become the man his family and town want and need him to, or does he stay true to himself, reciting poetry for pennies?
Lauby’s script is uneven. It’s too busy at times. When all the actors are onstage almost talking over themselves, “McAnigan” isn’t great at all. It has a broad, flat feeling. It’s often self-referential as well, with characters commenting on what should happen in various acts.
Yet it’s impossible not to take note of the funnier moments; a lot that goes on is clever and inventive. While his fellow students draw stick figures in art class, Andrew nonchalantly comes up with a “Mona Lisa.” Later, as he earnestly recites his poetry in the London streets, he’s the only one who doesn’t seem to recognize that it isn’t winning fans.
“The Great McAnigan” is at its sharpest in the calmer Act II, when Andrew has to juggle the ideas of doing what his heart says or buckling down and taking care of his family.
As an ensemble, the cast is pretty sturdy. Manders is an affable lead who carries a lot of the play on his shoulders, while Orr and Bartholomew are quite persuasive as his parents. A few of the supporting players, though, especially Amanda Lindsey, go way over the top.
As a relatively new Atlanta theater company, the Collective Project seems to have an enthusiastic new voice and vibe. Overall, though, its take on “The Great McAnigan” could use a little more seasoning, while the play itself could benefit from some rewrites. But a nice final scene does end it with a bittersweet moment, making up for a lot of the erratic tones that have gone before.
Learn more about the inspiration for the lead character here.