FOOL FOR LOVE
THE GIN GAME
Revivals are a lot trickier than they’re cracked up to be. It’s perfectly fine to have a new take on classic—or anyway a classic author’s, or a repertoire-respectable—play, but somewhere along the line, whatever you do to it, you have to have a real understanding of its core sensibility. “Rethought” and “reimagined” revivals of musicals often hit the wall spectacularly over this, because musicals, being so elevated a form, make the dichotomy between intention and misguided approach a fairly blatant one, once the damage is exposed to an audience; but with plays it tends to be subtler, especially as plays can and often do pursue a subtler agenda. Elliptical plays in particular.
I’m not sure whether Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love is as much a victim of being a product of its era (the early ‘80s) to which time has not been kind as a victim of mishandling by the current revival director, Daniel Aukin, but I saw the original off-Broadway production, directed by the author, and I remember being more at sea (in a good way, a way that makes a virtue of ambiguity) about the central, unsustainable relationship; which is between two compulsive lovers reunited, when the guy randomly shows up at her Mojave desert motel room. I also have a very distinct memory, shared by others I questioned who saw the original too, of the play seeming far more volatile; of the mysterious character of the there-but-not-there Old Man who comments on the action as if he’s there to see it (which would be impossible unless he was a manifestation of someone’s subconscious, which is also literally impossible, yet symbolically in sync) weirder; of it seeming safe now for the gal’s new suitor to arrive on the scene just when things are heating up with her old beau, where before you felt like he might be the match to the powder keg. Of once not knowing quite what universe I was in, even though I recognized the trappings and the culture of the setting, and now feeling as if I was exactly in the literal, unremarkable setting.
In Daniel Aukin’s new production, via the Williamstown Theatre Festival, courtesy of The Manhattan Theatre Club, everything sortakinda makes sense. And that's not a virtue. Nina Arianda and Sam Rockwell are merely a fiery couple playing out their last gasp of attraction; there’s not much threat that serious violence will ensue and what little occurs is comic; and speaking of things comic, Tom Pelphrey as the new suitor seems never in danger: he’s just a foil for the other two, perpetually outside of their own private joke. I can even explain away the Old Man if I want to. Basically, this Fool for Love is kinder and gentler than it was before, and indeed than (I think) it ought to be. Perhaps in intervening years, what with increased psychological awareness being part of our culture, it may have lost some of its pervasive air of unsettledness—the lovers bouncing between extremes of behavior now seeming less ambiguous than recognizably pathological—but to be in the audience with a sense of being…safe…seems very at odds with a play in which a self-destructive relationship is undergoing a final implosion.
This latest Fool for Love, though, is virtually an action movie compared to the revival of Harold Pinter’s Old Times. Pinter, as most of you know, loved to deal in allusion, ambiguity and uncertainty. He claimed that his method was to flesh out a situation and then remove key indicators of what playwright Jeff Sweet has dubbed “high concept”—details that specify without spelling out—and leaving others. Thus specificity is often deliberately compromised and core truths are left to interpretation.
Well, of course, he often did more than that. In No Man’s Land, a play seemingly predicated on the vagaries of memory, for example, the central relationship (between two reunited old men who knew each other long ago) is blithely and sans comment presented with blatant contradictions between Act One and Act Two.
But I believe that the successful realization of a Pinter play depends on two things, always. Playing the scenes, moment to moment, for very real stakes (I actually don’t think it matters how or if the actors and director justify those stakes, so long as the audience buys into the illusion of a fully formed inner life); and playing it against a backdrop of reality. That’s what makes Pinter plays unsettling and compelling: the shifting of perceptual orientation, of relationship definitions, within physical normalcy; and presented as if what’s happening is normal.
In Old Times, for example, you have two who may be a married couple (Clive Owen, Kelly Reilly) and another (Eve Best) who may or may not be a college friend of the wife and a (former?) mistress of the husband. It’s also possible that either or both of the women is, “in reality,” dead, but that’s for each audience member to interpret.
Director Douglas Hodge (also a British actor of renown) has made the fatal error of playing into the weirdness. The set (Christine Jones) is a living room in a dark limbo, the door to which is an iceberg, so reality is already in question when the play starts; and he has his actors play everything with an air of broody-moody, so we know before it starts that it’s all to be fraught with deeper existential meaning. It’s a counterproductive way to “fill out” spaces that need no filling out, a use of visuals and vocals that illustrate the ambiguity without illuminating it—taking away the audience’s ability to engage with what’s familiar such that the ambiguity can begin to insinuate itself into normalcy. Which, with Pinter is always the point. (Pinter himself on the subject: “What goes on in my plays is realistic, but what I'm doing is not realism.”) It’s incredibly dull, bordering on soporific; and my companion of the afternoon and a number of others I observed around me had crossed the border. (Full disclosure: at an event with this kind of pedigree, mixed with this kind of innate pretension, you’ll always see proponents: I also witnessed a degree of enthusiasm too. But as the science folks say, I think that’s a false positive. This is not one where I’d recommend rolling the dice.)
Happily, the revival of Caryl Churchill’s gender-bending essay on sexual stereotypes and the breaking thereof, Cloud Nine (which I got to late in the run) fares far better than the previous discussed revivals in the context of general sensibility. With its first act a parody of a British colonial melodrama set in Africa, and its second a look at “contemporary” (80s) British society—with certain male roles played by females and vice versa, and with antiquated echoes reflected, refracted, replicated and revised, and all in multiple roles—director James Macdonald managed to find a pace and tone that were perfectly adequate to its in-the-round staging, and, given the play’s complexities, managed too, and no small feat this, to stay out of its way. What he did not do, alas, was make the experience particularly stylish. The play itself is too lively and engaging to say that the presentation was mild, but in general, I found it lacked dash. It all needed to be hotter somehow, and Act One in particular played at a somewhat more heightened level. It pays to recall that the NYC debut of the play in the ‘80s, which ran for two seasons, was directed by Tommy Tune. And indeed, Cloud Nine is one of those rare plays you might describe as a musical without a score; for full effect, it needs that kind of flair, delivered with sly expertise. But as I say, for base-level accuracy, Mr. Macdonald and cast didn’t do too badly.
Even better, though, is The Gin Game, the two-hander (in several senses) by D.L. Coburn about a man and a woman who meet in an old age home and develop their ever-more-complex and tempestuous relationship over round after round of gin. Previously seen in NY with Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn (directed by Mike Nichols), and with Julie Harris and Charles Durning (directed by Charles Nelson Reilly), its new production features Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones with direction by Leonard Foglia. And by direction, I suppose what I mean is general guidance, because when you have Tyson and Jones, you pretty much let them do what they’re going to do and moderate. Subsequently, the dynamic here is a bit different than previously. Mr. Jones is simply too physically big, too stentorian of voice and too slowed by age to give us a Weller Martin capable of staple-gun volatility (a popping temper and a formidable volume, yes; staple-gun volatility, no); and Ms. Tyson’s natural persona is simply too sweet to deliver a Fonsia Dorsey prodded into bitterness (anger and exasperation yes; bitterness no); and those two details, at once very small and very large, make this iteration of The Gin Game more a comedy with a here-we-go-again ending, than a comedy that turns, on a last minute dime, into a tragedy about two people who need each other, but are too set in their ways to make new compromises. So it’s not the ideal rendition of the play; but the script is so economical that it virtually (and I think deliberately) begs to be filled out as two great actors might fill it; and there’s just no denying Jones and Tyson as opposite-energy forces of nature. It’s a pleasure to watch them work. We can just leave it at that.
The revival of Sylvia gets just about everything right, or at least right enough. But to read more about that, click to my rumination on current comedies…
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