Review: "Round Table" is a Knight at the Theater of the Highest Order

Round Table

Written by Liba Vaynberg

Directed by Geordie Broadwater

Presented by Fault Line Theatre and Anna & Kitty, Inc. at 59E59 Theaters

59 E 59th St., Manhattan, NYC

September 27-October 20, 2019

L-R: Matthew Bovee, Craig Wesley Divino, Sharina Martin, Liba Vaynberg. Photo by Carol Rosegg
How do you picture King Arthur, wielder of Excalibur and Knight of the Round Table? If you are Zach (Craig Wesley Divino) of Liba Vaynberg's Round Table, you eschew Disney's blond moppet and T. H. White's post-war reimagining for something involving a little more Middle Welsh and a little less dental hygiene. Centered on Zach, a part-time medieval literature scholar with a PhD from Harvard, Vaynberg's play, artfully directed by Geordie Broadwater and impeccably acted, interlaces multiple levels of fantasy and reality with funny, engrossing, and emotionally honest results.

After an opening monologue by Zach and a scene in which Arthurian knight Tristan (also Divino) dies in the arms of Morgan (Sharina Martin), Zach meets Laura (playwright Vaynberg) for his first experience with internet dating. Laura, as he learns, ghostwrites mainstream romance novels to support herself, although her true ambition, like that of many a jobbing writer, lies in less commercial avenues. While Zach reveals that he does some consulting work in addition to academic writing, it is not until a later time—the two hit it off well enough that there are later times—that he reveals that he consults and, more impressively, writes for the television show Round Table, the Game of Thrones of the play's world (television Round Table features swordplay, Shakespearian-sounding dialogue, and Andrew Scott. Would we watch this show? Yes, we would). This revelation clarifies that the earlier scene with Tristan and Morgan hails from the televised Round Table, one of a series of such scenes that are interspersed throughout the play and create thematic echoes, amplified by almost all of the actors playing multiple roles. These echoes are most often just that, suggestive resonances rather than strict parallels, such as how the accusation by Mordred (Matthew Bovee) that Arthur (Divino) has made promises that he won't be able to keep reflects on Zach's decisions (and vice-versa), though sometimes the analogues are closer, as in an exchange between Morgan and Arthur that distinguishes between fear of and readiness for death.

L-R: Liba Vaynberg, Craig Wesley Divino. Photo by Carol Rosegg
The disclosure that Zach works for Round Table paves the way for another admission: Zach LARPs. LARPing (live action role-playing) is probably most simply explained as a cross between historical reenactment and Dungeons & Dragons. Zach frames it as helping him write, but it might be more accurate to say that the three realities of the game, the show, and everyday existence interpenetrate and influence one another. Although Zach's brother Kay (Karl Gregory) shares a name with Arthur's brother, he does not share Zach's enthusiasm for LARPing, calling it "weird." Laura, however, is willing to give it a shot, meeting Zach's fellow LARPers Lena (Martin), who treats the game with a seriousness proportional to its being her one meaningful escape, and Jeff (Bovee), who is more concerned with the fact that Zach doesn't socialize with the rest of the community after events. Laura does not quite conquer Arthur's Wales her first time out, but that is ultimately less of a problem than the fact that Zach is holding back one final secret from her.

For anyone who might think that this sounds like it could be the set-up for one of the romances that Laura writes, the play, in the person of Kay, does name-check Nicholas Sparks, but only to emphasize what it very much does not do. Laura's claim that romance is the opposite of love is much closer to, perhaps key to, the play's themes and outlook. This opposition dovetails with the multiplying meanings of "real" in the play: Zach wants a more real Arthur and an experience more real than consuming art; Kay reprimands him that his health is more real than his work; the unreality of novels, myth, poetry (Alfred, Lord Tennyson's 19th-century Arthurian narrative poem cycle Idylls of the King figures prominently), gaming, and television help all of the characters variously to navigate their day-to-day realities. Round Table raises issues of consent and asks whether you would want to script your own death or not. It touches on feminism, insomnia, and inspiration. And it boasts the best crocheted pair of horns that we have personally seen.

L-R: Craig Wesley Divino, Karl Gregory. Photo by Carol Rosegg
The characters are drawn with compelling and realistic depth; and each gets at least a short monologue, some of which feature beautifully evocative writing—Laura's final monologue and her description of the process by which she imagines coming to write her own, new myth are stand-outs; and Lena's description of the role of schlocky novels in her struggles for sleep will ring painfully and recognizably true for some. The performances, as mentioned, are fantastic by all concerned, no matter on which of the three planes of diegetic reality they occur. Divino and Vaynberg's Zach and Laura are both extremely charming, despite their very human flaws, such as Zach's tendency towards a certain amount of denial and insistence that he can handle things. They imbue their relationship with a grounded believability, beginning from the slightly forced cheery extroversion of a first date to the tentative flirtatiousness of being in a romantic partner's apartment for the first time, to the weightier conversations that eventually arise, without ever losing their senses of humor. Gregory's Kay too retains his sense of humor even in the darker moments, and is as caring as he is snarky. Bovee's Jeff is equally funny both on and off the LARPing field, and Martin lends pathos and complexity to Lena. The fact that these characters are both genuine and genuinely likable gives Round Table's emotional beats that much more impact. Beyond wonderful performances, this is a production that also looks great. The minimalist set of cylinders and blocks in browns and beiges, designed by Izmir Ickbal and with a few branches set high up the only naturalistic touch, serves equally well as a forest, bar, or apartment; the scrim at the back of the stage is used to excellent effect, and the costumes and makeupparticularly those that highlight the difference between television and LARP budgetsdesigned by Johanna Pan, are terrific. 

Round Table is by turns hilarious, poetic, psychologically acute, and poignant without being sentimental. Should you be searching for superb theater, then your quest ends here.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

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