The journey inward


A Perfect Ganesh


Written by Terrence McNally

Directed by Peter Sylvester

WorkShop Theater Company and AKIZ Productions (

WorkShop Theater, MainStage Space, 312 West 36th Street, 4th Floor

Equity showcase (through September 13, 2008)

Review by Judd Hollander


It's rare there’s a coming of age story featuring two fifty-something women, but that's exactly what Terrence McNally has done with his story A Perfect Ganesh, currently being given a lovely and touching revival at the WorkShop Theater.


Determined not to go on the annual summer vacation to the Caribbean, plus trying to get over the death of her first born son (and favorite child) in a gay-bashing incident, Katharine Byrnne (Ellen Barry) has decided instead go to India, in an attempt to find some spiritual peace. Accompanying Katharine is her best friend Margaret Civil (Charlotte Hampden). Both ladies' husbands have decided to skip India and stay home this year.


As the first scene (which takes place in a New York airline terminal) clearly shows, both women are the perfect embodiment of "ugly American" tourists. Katharine is more than a little flighty, going on about the various wonders of everything they're going to see; while Margaret is the unsmiling complainer, who flies off the handle when the simplest things goes wrong, so much so one wonders why she even bothered to come on the trip in the first place. Yet as the journey unfolds, McNally begins to peel off the layers from both of these ladies, revealing the three-dimensional and tormented personas underneath.


Katharine blames herself for not accepting her son's homosexuality and also that she didn't get to the hospital before it was too late. ("He died 20 minutes before I got there!"). Meanwhile, Margaret has discovered a lump on her breast just before the trip and has no one to confide in, as she and her husband have grown distant. (She also knows her spouse has had a much younger girlfriend for the past seven years.) Each also carries deeper secrets that they are not yet ready to share. One can literally feel the poignancy of these moments when they desperately try to reach out to one another but find themselves simply unable to do so.


It's through the people they meet and the fact that their husbands are not there to run interference for them that Katharine and Margaret really begin to talk to each other for the first time in all the years they've been friends. They also quickly realize they often don't like each other, but present circumstances force them to make the best of things. Still, as they travel across the country and experience such events as walking among the country’s lepers, riding in an almost hour-long tunnel on a train trip, and searching for the perfect replica of the Hindu deity Ganesh (a man with the head of an elephant), the two start to let down their defenses and each slowly begins to see the deep strength and pain in their companion.


Just as important is the fact that every person Katharine and Margaret encounter (played by Gary Mahmoud and C.K. Allen in multiple roles) is similarly well-defined. From a harried yet wonderfully humorous airline clerk, to two gay men in India (both in different stages of AIDS), to a fellow tourist on a train, to a leper on the streets of India, all come across as fully three-dimensional, with each encounter adding additional depth to the play and allowing the women to continue to grow in the audience’s eyes. The play is narrated by Ganesha (Mahmoud), who adds several important plot points to the story but whose comments never interfere with the narrative flow.


The acting is excellent throughout. Barry is wonderful as a sort of suburban soccer mom suffering from empty nest syndrome; her eagerness to experience new things serving as a mask for her pain and guilt regarding the loss of her son (who constantly appears in her dreams, begging to be let go). It's through Katherine's actions towards others that we see her continual need for absolution, which she eventually learns must come from within.


Hampden works just as well as the stern Margaret (her last name an interesting play on her outward appearance and attitude). Completely unlikable at the start, she slowly reveals herself as carrying a lifetime of anger and hurt and, at this point in her life feels she has no one to depend on but herself. Her being able to open up about anything is a tremendous step. Allen and Mahmoud are both wonderful and believable in their various roles, projecting such emotions as pain, fear, morality, humor, wisdom and just trying to get through the day-as the various situations call for it.


Direction by Peter Sylvester is quite good, using a strong but subdued hand in keeping the pace flowing smoothly and helping to make this 2 hour and forty minute work seem half as long. The sets by Aaron P. Martin are fine, though rather minimal, with the narrative about the various locations doing much to fill in the blanks. Costumes by Cynthia D. Johnson and lighting by Duane Pagan also work well to evoke the essence of the script.


A central theme of the play is the fact that one often doesn't want see what's right in front of them (such as the terrible poverty in India), so intent are they on concentrating on their own problems or the next thing to do on their agenda. In A Perfect Ganesh, McNally has created and humanized two women who are forced to stop and smell the roses and, in the end become more whole, somewhat sadder and defiantly wiser for their efforts. This is definitely one of the best off-off-Broadway productions so far this season


Box Score:


Writing: 2

Directing: 2

Acting: 2

Sets: 2

Costumes: 2

Lighting/Sound: 2


Copyright 2008 by Judd Hollander


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