Liba Vaynberg’s Round Table is a small play with huge aspirations. Focusing on a pair of nerdy lovers who meet through an online dating app, Vaynberg’s work is at heart a sentimental and sweet romantic comedy. Interspersed throughout, however, are scenes inspired by the legend of King Arthur as well as monologues that break the fourth wall to address heady quandaries about unrequited love, self-idealization, and mortality. To the credit of the winning cast and fleet direction, the intimate production at 59E59 Theaters does not collapse under its own ungainliness.
The central characters, Zach (Craig Wesley Divino) and Laura (Vaynberg), seem perfectly matched when they first meet in a bar. He is a Ph.D. in medieval literature and has cobbled together a successful career teaching, writing academic articles, and serving as a consultant on media and entertainment projects. Laura is a writer, and while alternately dabbling at (and retreating from) her magnum opus, she is a ghostwriter for paperback romances.
Their relationship blossoms quickly, and when Zach reveals that he is a consultant and writer for the television series Round Table, which is most likely akin to Game of Thrones, Laura is smitten. More secrets are revealed, including Zach’s involvement with LARP, or live action role-play. At first this hobby seems a bit too geeky even for Laura, but she is intrigued. Soon, she cheerfully buys a medieval costume and awkwardly participates in one of the elaborate games with Zach’s fellow LARPers, Lena (Sharina Martin) and Jeff (Matthew Bovee). She is an unmitigated disaster.
Zach has one other secret that he shares only with his gay brother Kay (Karl Gregory): he is dying. As he explains in his opening monologue, Zach has a brain malady that prompts him to turn to heroic allegories, allowing him to conjure mythical, magical worlds and script his own deaths (since according to LARP rules, participants can die three times). He cannot, unfortunately, summon the words to tell Laura and include her in his own storyline with a built-in unhappy ending.
Vaynberg’s play revolves around the power of imagination as the characters valiantly strive to create the best versions of themselves through writing, performance, work, and relationships. The play includes frequent references to Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. For instance, Zach periodically quotes Tennyson’s celebrated lines:
They are building still, seeing the city is built
To music, therefore never built at all,
And therefore built for ever.
Like the illusory city, though, the characters’ efforts to achieve perfection are futile, but their idealized forms paradoxically exist in the act of creation.
Directed by Geordie Broadwater, Round Table is often quite funny and poignant. As the self-conscious lovers, Divino and Vaynberg are daffy and appealing. As Zach’s brother Kay (which is also the name of King Arthur’s foster brother), Gregory is appropriately bitchy, but in the expression of love for his terminally ill brother, he provides emotional grounding. Martin and Bovee give solid support in the fantasy sequences and LARP scene, but when the play attempts to make them more fully rounded, their inclusion seems unnecessary in the chock-full narrative.
The production also benefits from clever design elements by Izmir Ickbal (scenery), Johanna Pan (costumes), Cha See (lighting), and Fan Zhang (sound). Their contributions make the distinctions between the fantasy and urban worlds of the play always neat and tidy. And yet dramatically, the play seems cluttered with extended scenes from the Arthurian television episodes (or are these more fully realized LARP scenes?) and intermittent pseudo-poetic monologues. For example, in an excerpt from one of these monologues, Laura confesses her blossoming feelings for Zach:
And then I’m in your shirt and you’re in my blankets,
And I can’t decide if we’re awesome or if we’re porn.
And now you’ve left a scarf at my apartment
And dark bars and random restaurants become nights at the theater
And we’ve touched each other enough times at this point
That I’m hoping maybe you’re a feminist, too?
They’re rarer than you think
Still, Vaynberg shows great promise as a playwright. Although the flights of heroic fantasy and lyric poetry detract from the overall effect of Round Table, the romance of Zach and Laura makes for a lovely centerpiece.
Produced by Fault Line Theatre and Anna & Kitty, Inc., Round Table plays through Oct. 20 at 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th St., between Park and Madison Avenues). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; matinees are at 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Single tickets are $25 ($20 for 59E59 members). For tickets, call the 59E59 box office at (646) 892-7999 or visit www.59e59.org.