Although the specter of deadly physical contagion is right there in the title of “Joy and Pandemic,” the real subject of Taylor Mac’s new play is an insidious disease of the mind: racism and white entitlement.
Now premiering at the Huntington with frequent Mac collaborator Loretta Greco, the theater’s artistic director, at the helm, “Joy and Pandemic” ultimately proves to be more interesting to think about than to watch in performance. It doesn’t quite hold together.
But you have to admire Mac’s ambition as the play ranges across themes of erasure and reclamation; of the act of seeing, not seeing, not being seen; of art, faith, family, self-expression, power, and memory (and how self-serving that latter one can be).
The heart of “Joy and Pandemic” is located below the surface and behind the words. As for those words: The dialogue, largely enclosed within, and delivered with, a certain formality, sometimes registers as eloquent and witty, at other times as stilted.
Traces of “Grey Gardens” and “Sunday in the Park with George” can be detected in the structure of Mac’s play, whose exposition-heavy opening scenes put us in Philadelphia in 1918, where the influenza pandemic is beginning to gather force, a ravenous wolf at the door. At such a time, coughing could be — and is, in “Joy and Pandemic” — an act of aggression. Mac doesn’t push the parallels with the COVID-19 pandemic, but they hang in the air.
Joy Eldridge (Stacy Fischer), a devout Christian Scientist who runs a private art school for children, is seemingly shrugging off the threat of influenza. To Joy, fear is an illusion, “a lie we tell ourselves.”
So she is focusing her energy on preparing for an open house at the school that she runs with the assistance of her husband, Bradford (Ryan Winkles), and hyperactive teenage daughter, Pilly (Ella Dershowitz). Joy ignores the advice of Rosemary, Bradford’s mother (Marceline Hugot), to postpone the open house, considering “this plague.”
When Bradford sees a vibrant and arresting painting by the school’s only Black student, named Marjory (unseen in Act One), he feels no compunction about adding a few brushstrokes of white paint to Marjory’s work.
Arnulfo Maldonado’s minutely detailed set includes a clangorous set of chimes on the door that signal arrivals and departures. One arrival carries particular import: It’s Melanie Plachard (Breezy Leigh), Marjory’s mother. Melanie’s interactions with Joy — and, briefly, with Bradford — become increasingly fraught, with consequences that will reverberate down the years.
Act Two unfolds in 1952, when cases of polio were at their peak in the United States. The art school is now a residential space. Joy (played by Dershowitz) is on her deathbed, although the now adult Pilly (Fischer), her caretaker, is in denial about that. One-time student Marjory (Leigh) has come to visit Joy. It turns out that Marjory’s painting from all those years ago is hanging above Joy’s bed.
Mac is known for such works as “Hir” (presented by Chelsea’s Apollinaire Theatre Company three years ago), “Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus,” and “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music.” Back in 2012, the American Repertory Theater presented “The Lily’s Revenge,” an epic allegory about same-sex marriage, starring the author as a lily who wishes to marry a human.
It was a five-act phantasmagoria, nearly 4½ hours long, about which I wrote: “If Busby Berkeley had dropped acid while watching ‘Pee-wee’s Playhouse,’ the result might have been ‘The Lily’s Revenge.’ “
“Joy and Pandemic” is a much more sedate (and much shorter) affair. Fischer, always a welcome presence on Boston stages, endows the younger version of Joy with the steely will of someone used to imposing that will on others, while her Pilly is a touching portrait of a woman trying to make sense of her own life. As both Melanie and Marjory, Leigh delivers a taut, controlled performance. As Rosemary, Hugot is every inch the starchy grand dame.
And that painting from so long ago? Turns out it is not finished. But Marjory takes care of that.
JOY AND PANDEMIC
Play by Taylor Mac. Directed by Loretta Greco. Presented by The Huntington. At Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts. Through May 21. Tickets start at $25. 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org