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Theater review: 'The Good Book of Pedantry and Wonder' at the Theatre @ Boston Court

August 4, 2010 |  4:15 pm

Boston cover22

The creation of a dictionary wouldn’t seem to be the most thrilling narrative subject. Yet Simon Winchester has tackled it before in two surprisingly engaging books, “The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary” and “The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary.”
Not as fortunate with the tale of the OED’s birth is Moby Pomerance, whose play “The Good Book of Pedantry and Wonder” is receiving its world premiere at the Theatre @ Boston Court in a co-production with Circle X Theatre Co. Pomerance focuses on the workplace of James Murray, the dictionary’s principal editor, who slaved for years on a project that could at times resemble a more studious version of Captain Ahab's pursuit of the great white whale in "Moby-Dick." Trouble is, the playwright, enthralled by the context of his chronicle, hasn’t yet arrived at an assured dramatic path.

A dysfunctional family dynamic, inflamed by a father’s obsessive quest, is the general line of inquiry. But this field is broad, and the play, set in the mid-1880s, never finds a rhythm as it flits from Murray (John Getz), the epitome of the neglectful genius, to his brilliant and high-strung adult children (played by Melanie Lora and Ryan Welsh), both of whom are struggling to emerge from the avalanche of erudition that was their upbringing to claim some degree of autonomy if not emotional wholeness.

Pedantry 1 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.   

Like many works of historical fiction, “The Good Book of Pedantry and Wonder” relies too heavily on the material’s inherent fascination. There’s not an excessive amount of pedantry involved; but neither is there very much wonder.

-- Charles McNulty

"The Good Book of Pedantry and Wonder," Boston Court Performing Arts Center, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Aug. 29. $32. (626) 683-6883 or Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

Photos: Top, Ryan Welsh, left, and John Getz. Bottom: Time Winters. Credit: Ed Krieger / Boston Court