"Looking Glass" is not the most penetrating play to explore the odd personality of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson -- Lewis Carroll to most of us. But it is consistently interesting as it pokes into the crevices of his mind and the crannies of his life. And even better, it is handsomely acted by the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.
For this production, Woolly Mammoth has moved out of its usual downtown quarters and taken up temporary residence at the New Playwrights' Theatre on Church Street NW. Without question, New Playwrights' has the best experimental stage in town -- small enough to be intimate, yet not so small as to be confining. Part of the distinct pleasure of "Looking Glass" is watching it unfold in this particular space.
On one hand, the play is made up of a series of realistic vignettes depicting Dodgson's years at Oxford, where he was a lecturer in mathematics. A shy, retiring man, he stammered badly around adults and bumbled his way through Victorian society, imparting the distinct impression that he really would have preferred to be elsewhere.
On the other hand, he had an imagination as large as all outdoors and the play opens up periodically to depict the topsy-turvy tumult inside his head. Figures in his daily life -- the rotund dean of Oxford, the perpetually late chaplain, a snide and pompous rival -- are transmuted into characters from his celebrated children's books, "Alice in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass." New Playwrights' stage is receptive to both aspects -- the tight close-ups, if you will, and the surrealistic long shots.
Much of Dodgson's life is equivocal by today's standards. Around little girls, he was a Pied Piper in a starched collar. He adored amusing them with his fanciful tales, took them on boating parties and often photographed them, occasionally in the nude. In "Looking Glass," Dodgson justifies the photographs as "esthetically pleasing," his attempt to capture on film the "softness of painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti's line." But his peers see them otherwise. When nude photographs he has taken of 8-year-old Alice Liddell, the dean's daughter, are made public, he finds himself accused of gross indecency. Humiliated and broken, he disowns his books, aborts his fantasy life and retreats into scholarly solitude.
In the play's most surrealistic scene, Dodgson hallucinates that he has actually been put on trial. His real-life accusers, behaving suspiciously like their storybook counterparts, pronounce him guilty. But the real crime in their minds is "the killing of Lewis Carroll." It seems to be the contention of playwrights Michael Sutton and Cynthia Mandelberg that Dodgson's legacy far outweighs what appears to be his questionable infatuation with little girls. That may be true. But if "Looking Glass" isn't exactly a whitewash, you can't say it undertakes a deep probe of the man's psyche, either.
The evening remains involving, due in large part to a congenial performance by Grover Gardner, who captures the charm under Dodgson's introverted and punctilious facade. He is supported by one of the strongest casts the Woolly Mammoth has yet marshaled. Although the secondary roles -- a variety of snoots and prudes and Oxford sparks -- tend to be underwritten, Carter Reardon, Barbara Rappaport, Michael Kramer, Jim Byrnes and Jean Harrison, among others, make them seem whole. Or at least whole enough for the circumstances.
Antoni Sadlak/Jaworski has directed the play fluidly in a multiple set by Lewis Folden that could well be the attic of Dodgson's mind. James Hild has wrought an evocative background score out of tinkling music, ticking clocks and grave chimes. And the Victorian costumes by Jane Phelan and Petricia Raabe are properly stark, although when the play segued into "Wonderland" territory, I found myself wishing the actors' garb had undergone a similar transformation.
On its own terms, "Looking Glass" is not much more than a literary footnote. But Woolly Mammoth's quality production finds in it some of the lights and shadows of life. Your attention will be engaged and your curiosity provoked.
Looking Glass, by Michael Sutton and Cynthia Mandelberg, directed by Antoni Sadlak/Jaworski. Set, Lewis Folden; costumes, Jane Phelan and Petricia Raabe; lighting, John Connole; sound, James Hild. With Grover Gardner, Carter Reardon, Barbara Rappaport, Michael Kramer, Joseph Lee, Jim Byrnes, Jill Covington, Jean Harrison. At the New Playwrights' Theatre through April 7.