Playwright Noah Haidle has big ideas, a quick wit, and a lively theatrical imagination. He wants to be playful and profound, and he often succeeds -- especially when he allows his profundity to be playful. But his "Persephone," which opened in its world premiere Wednesday night at the Boston Center for the Arts, needs more refining and shaping if it is to become a fully finished play.
The sculptural metaphor is relevant, for the central character here is a statue -- not of Persephone but of her mother, Demeter, the Greek goddess of agriculture. It was Demeter's grief when Hades abducted her daughter, as the myth goes, that caused winter: Only when Persephone is released for part of the year does the earth bloom again.
In the first act, we see the unfinished statue in the Italian Renaissance studio of its creator, Giuseppe. In the second, we're transported to present-day New York, where Demeter suffers the outrages of pigeon droppings, graffiti, and acid rain while bearing witness to all the suffering and cruelty of the world.
In both, Haidle clearly wants to raise big questions about art and life, about whether humans can create order out of chaos, and about whether beauty can console us in the face of death. These are, of course, important and ancient questions, but they sometimes sit awkwardly on the shoulders of the characters to whom Haidle entrusts them.
First of all, there's Demeter, who talks to the audience but can't be heard by anyone onstage -- except a mouse in the first act and a rat in the second. The rodents also talk, with the mouse declaring that art is useless because it never kept anyone from going hungry or getting stepped on, and the rat rhapsodizing about the treasures he visits every Monday in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
There are also several human characters: the sculptor, his model, and his patron in Act 1, and a parade of crazies, crooks, and cops gone bad in Act 2. Demeter watches them all with an air of compassionate reserve, occasionally broken by her impatience with human weakness and vice. She also advises them, warns them, berates them, adores them -- all to no avail, of course, because no one can hear her but us and the rats.
It's a lot to ask of a statue, and Haidle piles even more responsibility on her shoulders by giving her grand speeches about beauty and suffering. The rat in Act 2 gets some of these, too, but the ridiculousness of his situation -- a leather-jacketed rodent waxing quietly philosophical -- leavens the heavy message-carrying a bit.
That kind of wacky/smart juxtaposition of huge themes and whimsical settings is Haidle's distinctive gift, one that earned him rapid acclaim with his first play, 2005's "Mr. Marmalade," in which a little girl has an imaginary friend who's too busy and narcissistic ever to play with her. It's apparently the quality that attracted Nicholas Martin, the artistic director of the Huntington Theatre Company, to Haidle's work.
Martin invited Haidle to develop "Persephone" with the Huntington, and the play received an early reading in the company's "Breaking Ground" festival last year. Martin directs this staging with empathy and flair; he has also assembled a first-rate cast. But the handsome production and the fine performances -- Melinda Lopez's strong and delicate Demeter, Jeremiah Kissel's virtuosic shape-shifting from wealthy patron to rodent to drug dealer and more, and hilarious comedy as well as heart-rending conflict from Seth Fisher and Mimi Lieber -- can only go so far.
Ultimately, the play needs to weave together its fancies and its philosophizing, and this it never quite does. The first act passes amusingly but leaves us wondering just what Haidle's up to; the second takes on a distinctly nastier tone, with many acts of violence and viciousness graphically unfolding as Demeter bewails, over and over, her inability to look away or close her eyes. It all ends in a deeply unsatisfying burst of retribution and unearned sunshine.
"Persephone" is a peculiar creature: frequently quite entertaining, just as frequently gratuitously disturbing, and occasionally irritating in its pretensions about Art. It also seems thin, as if it were a sketch that had been stretched uneasily into a full-length play; similarly, though David Korins has designed attractive and meticulously realized sets for both studio and park, their highly naturalistic detail may set the wrong tone for this deliberately unnaturalistic work. Oddly enough, if "Persephone" were smaller and simpler, it might feel bigger and more complex.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.