NEWTON -- From "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" to "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," there is a long line of characters being dragged off into a parallel universe where they discover alternative ways of looking at the world. The New Repertory Theatre has pulled off something of a coup in attracting the world
premiere of one of the latest in the genre, "Approaching Moomtaj: A Fairy Tale for Grown-Ups" by Michael Weller, even if Moomtaj isn't terribly likely to take its place alongside Oz or the Twilight Zone. The playwright is best known for "Moonchildren" in 1970 and other plays chronicling baby boomers. That generation is still the focal point for Weller in his latest work, though he has gotten more metaphysical and fan-
ciful in his exploration this time around. Here we have Walker Dance, a man in his 40s whose world is turned upside down in 2001 by A) Sept. 11, and B) the arrival of his half-brother. B is even more cataclysmic than A. The two boys have gone in different directions since their teens. Walker has an upscale Brooklyn apartment, a beautiful wife, a somewhat sullen son, an exotic mistress, and an unhelpful
shrink. Brother Wylie, on the other hand, is an unreconstructed hippie whose prowess on the Internet bespeaks either total frivolousness or the ability to save the world. He's trying to develop software that will send the user through the looking glass into a virtual reality that will take him through his worst fears into the promised land of self-realization. Walker spends a lot of his time contemplating, and somewhat envying, the Sept. 11 terrorists. At least, he thinks, they could do something with their rage and frustration. He's stuck in a depressive spiral in which he can't commit to anything.
So enter, much to this production's benefit, Thomas Derrah as Wylie. Derrah's ability to get inside Wylie's irreverence and keep us guessing about the character's machinations and motives provides the spice of "Moomtaj." His Wylie is the kind of guy who reminds you what it was like to inhale, and then inhale some more, with or without "White Rabbit" playing in the background.
The interplay between American Repertory Theatre veteran Derrah and New York actor Robert Prescott as Walker is terrific, a classic Dionysian-Apollonian divide that the two actors pull off with such aplomb that it lifts the action into a special theatrical space, whether in Brooklyn or Moomtaj.
When brother Walker trips the software and winds up in Moomtaj, a fictional Arabian village closer in spirit to that of "The Arabian Nights" than Al Qaeda terror cells, his world is turned upside down. Unfortunately, a little bit of Moomtaj goes a long way, and since the play approaches three hours, "Approaching Moomtaj" begins to feel more like a forced march than a nice place to visit. Even with an imaginative multimedia slide and film show by Dorian Des Lauriers, "Approaching Moomtaj" feels a bit threadbare.
The alternative world seems like a sillier and sillier arena for Walker to play out his frustrations, and it doesn't help that Weller writes much better male characters than female. The wife (Rachel Harker), mistress (Lordan Napoli), and therapist (Natalie Brown) are all stock figures, particularly the shrink. The three actresses are fine in Brooklyn, but something gets lost in translation when they arrive in Moomtaj as other characters. The son (Jacob Brandt) is also more foil than a character we care much about.
When you compare the people and the metaphors of "Approaching Moomtaj" to their counterparts in a similar exercise, "The Singing Detective," "Moomtaj" seems like a landscape still in need of artistic development.
Ed Siegel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.