by Ruth and Augustus Goetz
based on the novel Washington Square
by Henry James
Directed by Moisés Kaufman
Starring Jessica Chastain, David Strathairn
and Judith Ivey
Walter Kerr Theatre
Official Website

by August Wilson
Directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson
A Production of Signature Theatre
at the Pershing Square
Signature Center

by Edward Albee
Directed by Pam McKinnon
Starring Tracy Letts and Amy Morton
Booth Theatre
Official Website

Reviewed by David Spencer

I find myself liking the current revival of The Heiress (the sturdy warhorse drama by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, based on Henry James’s novel Washington Square) less as I get distance from it—which hardly seems like a fair way to open a review, especially when you can’t deny the actual experience (whatever kind you my have) of watching a show in-the-moment. But while I admired much of it, there was something about it that felt a few kliks off to me, and at the time I couldn’t have told you what it was; director Moisés Kaufman and his cast were certainly doing respectable work, and the story was adding up moment-to-moment. But finally, in retrospect, I realized that I was too conscious of moments. Of behavioral choices. Of actors at work. I don’t mean to say that there was anything as overt as overacting or flagrant affectation. But in this rendering of the story about the relationship between a plain young woman and her rich, disappointed father, I was always clocking how Jessica Chastain in the title role had so carefully molded her portrait of shyness to contain tics of discomfort; how David Strathairn had particularized his reserve; how Judith Ivey, as the heroine’s aunt Lavinia, provided a dotty laugh to illustrate her more liberal (and comparatively eccentric) view of life. And I began to compare the overall impact to that of the previous, 1995 Broadway revival, directed by Gerald Gutierrez (with Cherry Jones—pretty much putting herself on the map as a star—Philip Bosco and Francis Sternhagen in the same roles). The choices there were not so transparently choices, the character personae on offer as specific without being so transparently crafted. The Heiress may not precisely be a melodrama but it is absolutely on a par with British sagas like Downton Abbey in terms of the kind of manor hose territory it covers, and the affect and degree of naturalism goes a long way toward putting forth the illusion and distracting conscious thought from story mechanics. I emphasize again, what Mr. Kaufman and company have delivered is perfectly respectable and handles the material with care. But I could never fully take my mind off the fact that it was indeed being handled…


By contrast, while I’m hard pressed to say that the Signature Theatre’s revival of August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson is quite up to the Lloyd Richards original that was on Broadway in 1990, Ruben Santiago-Hudson  has nonetheless delivered up a solid production. Which is not terribly easy to do with a play whose story is so understated as to be very nearly invisible. As the title suggests, the central item is a piano—but it’s a special piano whose casing design includes carvings of its owning family’s slave ancestors. The play examines what such an heirloom means to different family members of different generations, as well as a few others deeply connected to the family—but central is the conflict between its co-owners sister Berniece (Rosyln Ruff) and brother Boy Willie (Brandon J. Dirden). The piano resides in her house where she wants to keep it as an honor and remembrance of the family past; yet she’s afraid to play it and disturb the unquiet spirits she believes are inside. But he’s an itinerant sharecropper who sees it as a saleable item that can get him some land of his own with his half of the money. He might feel differently if she were to actually use it, but with her refusal, he sees it as an asset gone to waste. The stalemate is a tense and dramatic one—

                        —but it’s also a stalemate.  Tough to keep audience concentration from flagging when rather than action there are discussions about action—especially given August Williams’ penchant or repetition and overwriting (of all the great American dramatists, he’s the most indulgent and the least well-edited since Eugene O’Neill)—but Mr. Santigo-Hudson and his cast manage the trick with very few lapses and none critical. Among other standouts in the cast are James A. Williams, Jason Dirden and the redoubtable Chuck Cooper.

But here's an experience I don't remember having had before as a critic: seeing a reinterpretation of a play that's so mind-blowingly on target that it makes you rewrite your impressions of previous prodiuctions you've liked. True: director Pam McKinnon's Broadway-imported Steppenwolf revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf had me going home thinking that director Anthony Page's 2005 production—starring Bill Irwin and Kathleen Turner as the iconic "Bickersons" George and Martha—had been very good indeed but no great shakes. A little instinct told me I should check my own history on that, so I looked up my 2005 review—and I had loved it. Unequivocally. Which meant that McKinnon and company had done something so extraordinary as to blow them off the freaking map; the map of my memory in any event. And what could they have done to so re-define, re-infuse, re-innent the experience of Edward Albee's classic American play? It's impossible to say definitively; there's an alchemical magic at work that defies labels and boxes. But the best I can figure is, she's fine-tooth-combed it for psychological truth, put it through the filter of what understanding pathology means in the context of 2012. She hit moments from fresh angles, highlights revealing lines that were never before memorable, makes every moment seem like a glimpse into—not just the hell of partners who thrive on combat…but the much deeper hell of combat borne of accommodation. Of acknowledging a root need for them to be together, sharing a soul-mate sensibility not to be found elsewhere; but the horrible requirements of compromise—to career, status, self-esteem, expectation—that have come with it. And she stages it in the living-room of a too big, two-storey house that is itself an intellectual and alcoholic shambles, with bottles  battling books for out-of-place dominance.

                       Of course, all this is but an intellectual conceit without the cast to bring it home, but Ms. McKinnon has the cast of one's dreams…or nightmares, depending upon one's point of view. Tracy Letts is the ultimate George; a social milquetoast in the real world, so disgusted by his own ineffectuality on staff at the university, by his inability to operarte at his own best level, that on his own turf, at home, provocation turns him into a mercenary warrior, whose pointed weapons are words dipped in the poison of merciless timing—who feels a pain even more profound than that which he can inflict. Amy Morton's Martha is the provacateur who knows how to trigger George's inner demon, but she also makes palpable the intellectual/physical need that bonds them, and the vocabulary of cheap sexuality so easily at her command to fling elsewhere when she wants to get a rise out of him. "Elsewhere" is Madison Dirks playing the cocky younger academic Nick, who teaches in the science department, with the increasing swagger of a walking dare; and his young dizzy wife Honey, played by Carrie Coon as a naif experiencing the growing terror that her sad future is to be collateral damage forever.

                       To put it in current colloq, but to mean it with literal sincerity, this is the Best Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf Ever. I do not think its like will come again—ever. And you owe it to yourself to be there.

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