Phil Gillen, Andrew Dawson, Aidan Sank. Photo: Jenny Anderson.

Phil Gillen, Andrew Dawson, Aidan Sank. Photo: Jenny Anderson.

By Stanford Friedman

With a name right out of a Victorian Gothic novel, and a moody body of work expressed in black and white, it is hard to remember that the author and illustrator Edward Gorey was a modern artist; a Harvard guy who lived on Cape Cod till his death in 2000, at age 75. But as Travis Russ’ semi-biographical one act likes to point out, time is fluid and fleeting, and houses, soon enough, can become museums. Gorey’s lifestyle provides both the beef and the gristle for this 75-minute “fantasy memoir.” He was secretive to the point that a fully realized characterization of the man is not possible, but his quirks and creations make for a pretty captivating tale. Or, as Spencer Tracy once said of that other New Englander, Katharine Hepburn, “There’s not much meat on her, but what there is is cherce!”

Tracing the path from his energetic twenties to his lonely demise, Gorey is exposed as a hoarder with seven cats and no libido. The work draws from the many artifacts of his life but also includes fictional elements as well as sporadic bouts of puppetry and, oddly, something resembling a comic dream ballet. The playwright’s biggest gamble, though, is that Gorey is portrayed by three different actors, all occupying the stage simultaneously. Twenty-something Gorey (Phil Gillen) is eager. Gillen brings a much needed emotional energy to the role. Thirty-something Gorey (Aidan Sank) is matter-of-fact. Sank’s most captivating moment is a deadpan presentation of Gorey’s postcard collection, all of which feature post-mortem babies. And seventy-something Gorey (Andrew Dawson) is effete, with a love of full-length furs and The Golden Girls. Dawson’s sensitive portrayal finds the sympathy in a man who could otherwise have been seen as a Grade A oddity.

Visually, this trifecta is effective, with the clean-shaven Gillen, the black-bearded Sank and the silver-chinned Dawson. Intellectually, there are some missed opportunities. With a set up that’s ideal for reflection – what does a 70-year-old Gorey think of his 20-year-old’s actions, and vice versa – we get only a couple tastes of what clever turns there could have been. These come when the three discuss their pallid love life, and when they survey their ever growing collection of clutter. The youngest Gorey observes, “My life is becoming one giant morass of muddle,” to which the elder Gorey responds, “I bought that steamer trunk over fifty years ago…It’s filled with three hundred pounds of rusting metal objects.”

Of course, one man’s muddle, is another man’s treasure, and so the evening is full of little gems to discover. Upon arrival, the program is handed to you all folded up like a private little message from beyond. Audience members can roam the stage before the show to examine a wall of washed out letters and illustrations representing the many thousands of pages Gorey left behind. The wall serves as a screen upon which we see some actual footage of the Cape Cod house (now the Gorey museum), a projection of a hilarious rejection letter from The New Yorker, and an animated short featuring a reoccurring character in Gorey’s repertoire that is somewhere between a self-portrait and a penguin in sneakers. Its name, perfectly, is Doubt.

Gorey: The Secret Lives of Edward Gorey – Written and directed by Travis Russ.

WITH:  Andrew Dawson, Phil Gillen, and Aidan Sank.

Projection and lighting design by John Narun; puppetry design by Elizabeth Ostler; sound design by Emma Wilk; choreography by Katie Proulx; costume design by Peri Grabin, original art by Russell Warren-Fisher; Carl Vorwerk, technical director. Life Jacket Theatre Company at HERE, 145 Ave of the Americas,, 212-352-3101.  Running time: 75 minutes.