Up until Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez made that movie, the word “Gigli” was associated with images of beauty, the splendour of the opera, and, more specifically, the renowned Italian tenor Beniamino Gigli. In Irish playwright Tom Murphy’s The Gigli Concert, originally written in 1983 and on stage now at Soulpepper Theatre, the singer’s voice represents not only beauty, but hope itself—the one saving force that can pull its two central characters from deep depressions. And, thankfully, the journey to the other side is infinitely more watchable than the previously mentioned Hollywood film.
Stuart Hughes portrays JPW King, and Diego Matamoros plays a character known simply as “Irish Man”: the former is a penniless practitioner of “Dynamatology,” a marginal self-help and psychological discipline, and the latter is a wealthy but determinedly unhappy man whose one solace is the music of Beniamino Gigli. One day, Irish Man enters King’s disordered office/apartment and tasks King with the job of making him sing like his operatic idol, and King, with no other prospects and an inexplicable attachment to the man, accepts. There is very little singing in The Gigli Concert, though—King’s plan is to let his patient’s despair overtake him until it snaps. But soon enough, King finds himself becoming increasingly obsessed with the singer, as his own grasp on mental health fails.
The script explores serious themes of depression and disappointment, but often does so through humour and biting wit. King and his patient start out as an odd couple: Matamoros darts about the office (while his voice makes comical shifts from low to high with as much urgency), and Hughes is a slow-moving iceberg on stage. But they quickly morph into a couple of bros—they grow to depend on their meetings, they drink (a lot), they trade sex stories and bitch about the women in their life. The Irish Man’s depression is causing a rift within his family, and King’s own self-inflicted exile from Britain is the result of an obsession with a married woman who rejected him. Meanwhile, the only other character who enters King’s professional and personal orbits is Mona (Irene Poole), a married woman with a string of suitors scattered around Dublin. In fact, in this mostly enjoyable script, the only glaring problem is related to gender: the men commiserate, speculate, and articulate, while we’re allowed only brief glimpses into Mona’s mental concerns, which are seemingly much more grave. That’s not helped by the ending, which sees two of the play’s three characters on the path to mental health and happiness. Guess which one quietly fades away, presumably into a future of doom and despair?
With comparatively little to work with, Poole is nevertheless captivating as Mona. Matamoros and Hughes produce magnetic performances. The only slight disappointment is Nancy Palk, who could have taken a stronger directorial hand in shaping the characters into more than they appear on paper, and brought a clearer sense of closure to the final act.
The Gigli Concert offers an entertaining, lighter look at mental health, but we’re just not begging for an encore.