This year the Purple Rose seems to be celebrating the misunderstood keepers of high culture. Purple Rose founder Jeff Daniels, playing way against type, delivered an ace performance in movie theaters this winter in The Squid and the Whale as the repellently intellectual Bernard Berkman. Daniels then turned around and wrote for the Purple Rose a play about a ravaged intellectual curmudgeon, the recently closed Guest Artist. The Late Great Henry Boyle, making its Midwest premiere at the Purple Rose through June 3, tills a similar patch, with Jon Lepard playing a scholar whose brilliance has catapulted him into an unstable glory.

Like Guest Artist, Livonia playwright David MacGregor's drama explores the one-two punch of fame and drink foisted on someone who isn't equipped to handle either one gracefully. With his long, chiseled face and slim, loose-jointed body that looks as if it had been made to model tweed jackets and trench coats, Lepard is the quintessential neurasthenic bookhead. As medievalist professor Henry Boyle, unworldly, befuddled, rumpled, and unwashed, he's living in his office, tanked on absinthe — which, in his unworldliness, he doesn't realize is not intended to be drunk straight — and even more tanked on a tattered copy of the writings of Boethius, a sixth-century Roman philosopher.

In this altered state, Boyle writes a novel that makes him famous almost literally overnight and keeps his tenure from being revoked. Add to that slightly fantastical proposition this one: the guy is a babe magnet. As the play opens, he's losing his lusty wife, but by dinnertime he has another fair bosom in a swoon with a line of patter about castle latrines.

But it holds together well enough for light comedy. This is a tight little production, well cast, studded with small production details. In one elegant move, for instance, the passage of time is simply registered by Lepard's pulling a bottle out of a desk drawer. Wayne David Parker, an extremely gifted and completely shameless character actor, plays a venal literary agent — and if you've never seen one of his characters, that's reason enough to see this play. He touches on the stage with the force of a tornado and invents his own logic. Paul Hopper, another Purple Rose ensemble player often cast in buffoonish, Falstaffian parts, makes a surprisingly graceful and elegant academic sidekick. Direction, light, sound, and set design create sequences that move a lot faster and more efficiently, frankly, than some of the dialogue, which at times is almost as leaden as real ivory tower repartee.

Academic plays, maybe not surprisingly, are hard to pull off in an academically sophisticated town. It's not that academics never find themselves the darlings of Oprah and Jerry Springer, it's just that by the time they do, they usually aren't very well thought of in the academic world anymore, so some of the basic plotlines of Henry Boyle are a hard swallow. Yet The Late Great Henry Boyle isn't intended as an exposé of academic enterprise so much as it is a convenient setting to say a few interesting things about a forgotten Roman philosopher and fame, and it ends with a surprisingly tantalizing mystery. Did he or didn't he jump into the volcano?

[Review published May 2006]