Two Women Search for India - and Themselves

A PERFECT GANESH. Play by Terrence McNally. Directed by John Tillinger. At the Manhattan Theatre Club, City Center Stage I, through Aug. 22.

PERFECT Ganesh" sounds like a Jewish food, as one of the play's characters remarks. But it actually refers to the quest for the perfect specimen of a souvenir statue of a Hindu god. This is one of the main activities of Katherine (Zoe Caldwell), who, along with her friend Margaret (Frances Sternhagen), is on a two-week vacation exploring India in Terrence McNally's new play.

These suburban housewives, traveling without their husbands, are also on a spiritual quest of sorts. Both face existential dilemmas: Margaret is ignoring a possibly serious illness, and Katherine is struggling to cope with the fatal beating of her son by a gang of black youths and her guilt over her antipathy toward his homosexuality, which provoked the attack.

The play is less ponderous than it sounds, due to McNally's facility with witty dialogue and the quips that characterized such past efforts as "Frankie and Johnny" and "Lips Together, Teeth Apart." But the writing strives for an epic quality, both in its physical breadth (there are what seem like dozens of scenes that take place throughout India, including the Taj Mahal) and its emotional complexity.

Unfortunately, the writing is never completely convincing, and except for scattered scenes, such as Katherine's encounter with a leper, or Margaret's revealing of a tragedy from her own past, the play seems forced.

This is despite much fine work. The production has been skillfully directed by John Tillinger, who provides a cinematic fluidity to the action. Ming Cho Lee's abstract set design utilizes the entire massive stage, creating a Cinemascope-like effect.

The acting is exemplary. Caldwell makes us feel Katherine's pain every second, even when she is being lighthearted. And Sternhagen, as the prim and proper Margaret, takes what could have been a stereotypical role and invests it with subtle shades of emotion.

Dominic Cuskern plays the role of Ganesha, who acts as a sort of chorus and narrator. Outfitted with an elephant's head, he brings both warmth and humor to the graceful movements choreographed by Carmen de Lavallade.

Fisher Stevens plays all of the men in the piece, starting with a hilarious portrayal of a burnt-out airlines clerk, and continuing with an amazing gallery of types, including a fatally ill neighbor, Katherine's dead son, and a surly Indian waiter.

Even though he is writing of such familiar themes as the pain of loss and the tragedy of intolerance, McNally seems out of his milieu here. "A Perfect Ganesh" is a noble and ambitious effort, and a fascinating failure. And in these dramatically impoverished times, a failure by Terrence McNally is more interesting than a success by almost anyone else.

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