Review Rundown: “The Good Book of Pedantry and Wonder”

Critic’s Pick!

John Langs directs this world that looks so dusty and feels so fresh. Emotions are worn gently on sleeves, with tasteful touches of comedy layered throughout. The casting (Michael Donovan) is flawless. As James, John Getz looks decrepit but simmers with dogged energy, seemingly possessed by his character. Melanie Lora’s Jane is upright but far from starchy, a staunch little feminist who suddenly and sweetly capitulates to her father’s opinions when the pair discusses word choice. Ryan Welsh’s Paul is sturdy enough to have traveled the world but fragile enough to have suffered his father’s abuse.

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Pomerance’s writing provides a veritable torrent of wit and erudition that recalls Oscar Wilde in a non-frivolous mode. Director John Langs, well respected for the smart recent history of The Sequence at Boston Court and a revelatory Brothers Karamazov at Circle X, does similar wonders here, getting impressive performances from an outstanding cast. This is exciting, newly forged theater gold, and it’s one of the best plays of the year.

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If the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary seems hardly the stuff of great drama, it would seem even less likely the source of laugh-out-loud comedy. Nonetheless, it’s precisely the latter that English playwright Moby Pomerance has concocted in his terrifically entertaining The Good Book Of Pedantry And Wonder. With a playwright as clever and original as Pomerance providing the words, direction as sparkling as that of John Langs, and a cast as splendid as the one assembled on the stage of Theatre @ Boston Court, the journey from lights up to curtain calls is an enjoyable one indeed.

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What Mr. Pomerance and director John Langs have assembled is a masterpiece of wit, information, period behavior and “words, Polonius, words.” Funny, suspenseful, clever and educational, it’s a wise play, as well as an informative one. Long at 2.5 hours, it’s also great fun, worth the extra time spent in its company.

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Moby Pomerance’s writing is at times brilliant – his word plays and literary allusions are clever and engaging and there is a pleasing blend of low comedy and high culture in his new work The Good Book of Pedantry and Wonder now onstage at Boston Court.

The polish is evident everywhere. The Good Book of Pedantry and Wonder is, in essence, about the war of intellect and emotion.  More, it is based on something very real.  Indeed, one may never look at a dictionary the same way again.

James Murray is working on the job of a lifetime—the job of several lifetimes, actually—compiling the Oxford English Dictionary. He has taken over the task from earlier editors, and, given his advanced age and rate of progress, someone else will likely take over for him. But here and now, everything is the dictionary. It’s all about definitions, word origins (from many different languages), and thousands of bits of paper bearing quotations.

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The most vivid element of the production, directed by John Langs, is Brian Sidney Bembridge’s set design, which re-creates Murray’s scriptorium in Oxford, England. Slips of paper line the shelves of this beehive of etymological and definitional activity. Desks, hierarchically coded by height, reveal the standing of the workers, who with the exception of Smythic (Time Winters), don’t tend to stick around very long under Murray’s exacting impersonal manner.

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The silver-bearded Murray, played with stern tenacity by John Getz, is the play’s anchor, though his lithe, adult daughter Jane (a prim Melanie Lora, blending a touch of snootiness with a dollop of sweetness) is the central character of a play that concerns itself with her emancipation from the tiny empire of words clutched so tyrannically by Jane’s increasingly raving father.

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Have you ever been to a sumptuous feast where the table is beautifully set; the company is intriguing, intelligent and well-read; the food is a rich tapestry of flavors, ranging from hearty meat to creamy concoctions; the background music is lithe and unobtrusive, and your host is a witty, charming, beguiling philologist? Within the first thirty minutes, you swear that this will be the greatest night of your life.

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In Pomerance’s telling, the famous Oxford Scriptorium — a dank shed full to bursting with submitted words, origins and citations on millions of paper scraps — was notable less for its mission to catalogue the entire English language than for its makeshift staff’s psychological crotchets. Project leader James Murray (John Getz) roars through the rooms in a torrent of absent-minded invective, largely oblivious to put-upon daughter Jane (Melanie Lora) and weak prodigal son Paul (Ryan Welsh), let alone overworked clerk Smythic (Time Winters).

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James Murray, the obsessive etymologist who drove himself, his children, and a phalanx of linguaphiles to create the encyclopedic Oxford English Dictionary (OED), is the inspiration of Moby Pomerance’s The Good Book of Pedantry and Wonder, premiering (through August 29) at the Theatre @ Boston Court in co-production with Circle X.

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