VANYA AND SONYA
THE OUTGOING TIDE
THE GOOD MOTHER
Here’s another one of my roundups, done in the interest of staying timely in the face of other life ad career obligations. As always, please forgive the brevity; I’ll do my best to keep distilled from seeming perfunctory.
Checkers by Douglas McGrath at the Vineyard is a surprising little sleeper about the events leading up to Nixon’s famous “Checkers” speech that secured him the Republican Vice-Presidential nomination on the ticket with Eienhower, and essentially defeated the Republican Party’s attempts to oust him. In fact, aided by Anthony LaPaglia in the lead, it actually manages to make Tricky Dick sympathetic and at times even touching. Kathryn Erbe lends stalwart support as loyal but beleaguered wife Pat, and Lewis J. Stadlen sinister comedy as Nixon’s key political advisor. The direction by Terry Kinney is mostly first rate except for the scene changes; the scenes are many and on the short side. Neil Patel’s set is not designed for cinematic fluidity (though it cleverly accommodates many locales) and we have to wait through musical interludes as its elements are manipulated for each consecutive configuration. Perhaps there are those who can tune this kind of thing out; I’m not one of them.
Chekhov’s Ivanov—a young work and, to borrow a Shakespearean category, a “problem play” because of its internal challenges: the title character’s relentless and largely baseless depression (with 20-20 hindsight you’d have to excuse it as chemical, which isn’t dramatically very satisfying) and a denouement whose logic is convoluted at best—is nonetheless getting the closest thing to a bang-up production as it can get at the CSC, under the expert, nuanced direction of its resident Chekhov expert, Austin Pendleton, who appears in it as well. Ethan Hawke gets as much mileage as he can out of the tortured hero—mostly by playing exasperation in the face of absurdity to comic effect—and Joely Richardson does even better as his tortured wife. The distinguished and eccentric grand masters George Morfogen and Roberta Maxwell add to the angsty fun.
Speaking of Chekhov, there’s Christopher Durang’s modern-day Chekhovian pastiche, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (heretofore V&S&M&S), at the Mitzi Newhouse, downstairs of the Vivian Beaumont at Lincoln Center. While Durang’s play on aggregate doesn’t “knock it out of the park,” it’s pleasant enough company for being an affectionate send-up; and enough of a play unto itself not to be so hollow as a mere send-up. The play, set in a rambling Bucks County farmhouse offers amusing spins some of the standard Chekhov archetypes. First and foremost there’s the central couple who have no other existence but service to the house, 50+ brother and sister Vanya— the sober, bemused foil to eccentricity; a gay straight-man, if you will (David Hyde Pierce) and manic-depressive Sonia, who has no relationships other than with Vanya and “no life” (Kristine Neilsen). They are visited by their sister, the phenomenally self-absorbed film star Masha (Sigourney Weaver) who controls the purse strings and can determine the fate of the house and its inhabitants; and she arrives with her new, twentyish boy-toy, punkish star-on-the-rise Spike (Billy Magnussen). There’s also a voodoo-practising house servant, Cassandra (Shalita Grant), and a convenient ingénue next door to liven things up: Nina (Genevieve Angelson).
The play rambles rather like the house and in its self-referential anachronism strains its own illusion; for example, Vanya and Sonia are aware of Chekhov because they have been named by their (now-deceased) parents for Chekhov characters. But that also gives Durang license to move away from any obligation to be wholly Chekhovian, and sometimes that works too. However, as that would suggest, the play is a bit of a patchwork quilt; this is enabled by director Nicholas Martin, who, one might argue, has confused the notion of different character archetypes with different acting styles; though one could as easily argue it as an edgy conscious choice. In any event that too has a hit-and-miss effectiveness: it works quite well in the contrast between Hyde Pierce’s position as foil/center hub and Ms. Neilsen because the latter’s craziness has a palpable emotional core. It works less well with regard to Sigourney Weaver, who affects a portrait of self-absorbed vacuity that is a comment on self-absorbed vacuity—full of poses and indicative “winks” to underscore the joke—so you’re always aware of the actress at work. And in those moments V&S&M&S comes off less as a play than as an attenuated skit. How well the whole experience lands for you will depend entirely upon your affection for the actors and the goofy charm with which they infuse the proceedings.
Philly playwright Bruce Graham’s The Outgoing Tide was spotted by my significant other, with a laser-sharp accuracy exceeded only by how annoyingly speedy it was, as an Alzheimner’s play just by the tells on the program cover: shot of an older man and woman, a middle-aged man between them, bleeding into a shot of a boat on a lake, gulls flying in formation above it—and a title that had to be a metaphor. For the length of the first scene, I suppressed the urge to nudge her by way of saying “See? You don’t know everything”, as it depicted the middle aged guy, kind of a milquetoast (Ian Lithgow), talking to the cantankerous older guy (Peter Strauss) about buying a house in the neighborhood on the river. And good thing too, because, sure enough, the middle aged guy then turned upstage to start the new scene as the older woman (Michael Learned) entered, he addressed her as Mom and they started talking about how Dad didn’t recognize him.
Fortunately, the rest of the play isn’t quite so schematic, though it breaks no new ground. In some aspects it’s in the tradition of Whose Life is it Anyway? because it explores the issue of whether or not being fatally afflicted gives you the right to check out at your own time and on your own terms.
The dialogue is sharp (the father’s in particular) and there’s a nice bit of internal suspense along the way. I do, however, wish that Bud Martin’s direction were up to it. There’s a notable raggedness to blocking and timing—especially that of Ms. Learned, who absolutely knows her lines yet doesn’t seem fully on top of them—and Mr. Lithgow’s portrayal of the son is too cipher-like for maximum impact (even though the play enables that trap). Only Peter Strauss, as the Dad, really brings home the goods with a deep portrayal and swell comic timing…but right at the start, even he takes some getting used to, because in being crotchety and cantankerous he’s playing a little bit against his natural persona (during the 70s and 80s he was arguably the leading man king of miniseries and TV movies and his approach was always rooted in a kind of urban sophistication, even when the characters weren’t precisely urban sophisticates) and it takes him awhile to stop showing he can do it and just do it. Which is not to say that this production at 59E59 isn’t worth your time. It’s just not all it could—or should—be.
If The New Group has a specialty, it’s plays about disturbing characters doing disturbing things, and often the plays wallow in varying levels of depravity without a moral compass. The current NG offering, The Good Mother, could therefore be said to be exercising admirable restraint, as Larissa (Gretchen Mol), the heroine of Francine Volpe’s play seems at first to be a comparatively responsible mother of an (offstage) autistic child. As the play proceeds, though, she’s revealed to have a penchant—perhaps an unconscious one—for introducing little dangers into her existence, that may or may not have consequences. If it were a play about a thrill junkie, there might be some emotional sense to this, but her total obliviousness about this aspect—especially because she seems fairly bright and together about most else—gives the play an atmosphere of what I call imitation enigma, a pretense of indefinableness to fuel debate and discussion later. (i.e. How culpable is she really?) This is a highly personal opinion, but I see it as the cheapest way to be mysterious about the unknown nature of the human soul and while I can’t/won’t read into Ms. Volpe’s creative rationale, and it always strikes me as a lazy device unless there’s a genuine reveal at some point in the final (structural) act. To be sure, enigma has its place and I don’t boycott it—but it always seems to me the most unreal ingredient in a play meant to be realistic. Especially when the darker side of human nature is at the core.
Continuing the usual New Group tradition, though, there’s the paradox of this kind of thing being given loving direction by artistic director Scott Elliott, such that it’s never dull. And the cast, per usual, is fine too, Ms. Mol especially. (For a contrasting example of realism and enigma used to good purpose, see my review in this edition of The Whale.)
When asked what Emotional Creature was about, a friend of mine in the biz joked “young vaginas” (a comment on the show being by Eve Ensler, creator of The Vagina Monologues), but given its subtitle, The Secret Life of Girls Around the World, that’s not terribly far off the mark. As in The Vagina Monologues, Ms. Ensler is very concerned with the plight of females in repressive societies and situations—and the joy of females in healthier circumstances—but the focus here is women of tween, teen and very young adult years. And unlike The Vagina Monologues, this is not a staged concert reading that can welcome periodic guest-star plug-ins to read off scripts on music stands, but rather a full-scale, memorized-staged-choreographed revue (yes, there’s even a modicum of song performed to pre-recorded tracks). Its energy is of a higher, hotter level than TVM, which is altogether fitting given that the age of the cast matches the age of the characters portrayed. It’s a fine and engaging cast too, under the equally engaging direction of Jo Bonney, covering a demographic of ethnic and social types (especially striking is Emily Grosland, whose focus tends to be explicitly or implicitly lesbian characters), and the show is a warm and ultimately uplifting one.
only caution? Make no mistake, this is “manifesto theatre”; you go precisely because it’s
going to be preachy, moralistic, inflammatory,
provocative and guilt-inducing, even as it entertains. It means to
enlighten and spur you into awareness if not full-metal action. If
you’re not in the
market for a socio-political statement about tolerance, equality and
nurture of young sexuality, Emotional Creature will only get under your skin in the wrong way.