Monday, February 13, 2012

Why We Go to the Theatre: Rosemary Harris and David Hyde Pierce

Jim Dale, Carla Gugino, and Rosemary Harris in The Road to Mecca

In the Broadway revival of Athol Fugard’s The Road to Mecca by the Roundabout Theatre Company, the luminous Rosemary Harris plays Miss Helen, an aging Afrikaner widow in a small South African village (in an arid section of the country known as Karoo) in the mid-1970s who reaches out to a younger friend, Elsa Barlow (Carla Gugino), a Capetown schoolteacher, at a time of personal crisis. Miss Helen is an artist whose fanciful sculptures of animals and other creatures fill her yard and have unsettled her conventional neighbors for years. She and Elsa became friends when the younger woman, passing through the Karoo, stopped to admire the art – and Miss Helen, used to a mixture of disdain, mockery and dismissal from the other villagers, warmed to her enthusiasm. Elsa, too, is a renegade: she keeps getting in trouble with the school board because she encourages her students, who are black, to speak and write about equality. She loves Miss Helen because she sees her as that rarity, a truly free spirit, and that freedom is manifested in what she calls her Mecca, that yard full of wild creations that the close, churchgoing village of New Bethesda finds creepy, even shocking. But Miss Helen hasn’t been able to make any art for some time, and she fears that her inner vision – the images that appear to her, guiding her hand – may have stopped for good, leaving her in darkness. The desperate tone of her last letter has drawn Elsa to her cottage for a visit. She arrives just at the point at which the local minister, Marius Byleveld (Jim Dale), has almost persuaded Miss Helen to give up her solitary house and go into a home.

The Road to Mecca is a didactic drama that pits the expression of freedom against the staunch, staid, safe orthodoxy of the prevailing culture, which instinctually moves to suppress it. And in the context of a South Africa still under the yoke of apartheid, of course that orthodoxy has a distinctly political side that, in Fugard’s scheme, it is Elsa’s role to address. The preacher Marcus, though Fugard paints him as well-meaning and gentle, stands in for an unthinking, undifferentiated Christianity dedicated to perpetuating the status quo; his legitimate concern for Miss Helen’s welfare – which is prompted by a troubling incident in which candles set her living-room curtains on fire – simultaneously enables him to work toward stilling the creative impulse in her that, in his view, generates a sort of aesthetic paganism. (Dale, with his scarecrow frame and long, sorrowful face, makes a wonderful entrance, but the role gives him precious little to build on.) The play dramatizes the same theme as Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa: the conflict between a repressed Christian culture and a savage voice that threatens it. Both plays suffer from the familiarity of the theme and the careful, uninteresting way in which it’s worked through.

Rosemary Harris and Carla Gugino
The revival has a raison d’être, however: the luminous Rosemary Harris, who gives a richly colored performance. Most people know Harris only as Aunt May in the Spider-Man pictures, but she’s one of the great living actresses; if you’re able to get hold of a copy of the 1963 film of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, where she plays Yelena opposite Laurence Olivier and Michael Redgrave, or the British TV adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, in which she’s Mrs. Ramsay, you’ll see what I mean. And if you’ve ever been lucky enough to see her on stage you’re unlikely to forget the experience. She has a soft-hued intensity as Miss Helen that’s matched by nothing else in Gordon Edelstein’s production except for the magnificent set and lighting designs by, respectively, Michael Yeargan and Peter Kaczorowski.

I saw this play in New York in 1988 with Yvonne Bryceland and Amy Irving in the older and younger roles and didn’t care for it then. (Fugard played the minister and directed the show.) But I didn’t think I could pass up the chance to see Harris, and I looked forward to Carla Gugino, an underrated film and TV actress who co-starred at the Roundabout in 2006 in Tennessee Williams’s Suddenly, Last Summer, as the fragile, wasted southern belle whose tale of her cousin’s monstrous death on a Mexican beach is so scandalous that her rich aunt is willing to lobotomize her to silence it. It was a challenging role – the one Elizabeth Taylor wasn’t up to in the movie version – and Gugino who had been shaky at first, ultimately distinguished herself in it. (I saw the production in preview and then again shortly before it closed, because Blythe Danner was so amazing in the role of the aunt that I wanted to see her twice.) But Gugino’s not very good as Elsa, and odd as it seems, this performer, so natural and unstrained on camera, comes across as fussy and actorish. The part isn’t exactly a gift. Elsa is pedantic, impatient and demanding, even bullying, but impossible as her behavior to Miss Helen is, Fugard doesn’t seem to mean us to dislike her. I don’t know how the character is supposed to be played so that we won’t want to throttle her, but Gugino’s mannerisms distance us even more. The combination of the drab play and the drab production is wearing, but Harris’s delicacy and the range of her emotional palette are something to see.

David Hyde Pierce and Rosie Perez in Close Up Space

A fair number of lousy plays manage to see the light of day, but Molly Smith Metzler’s Close Up Space, which had a brief run at the Manhattan Theatre Club, is almost unimaginably bad. David Hyde Pierce plays the editor of a small publishing company who has succeeded in removing himself from the sphere of his rebellious, acting-out teenage daughter (Colby Minifie) by sending her away to a series of boarding schools. The girl’s problems are her sorrow over her mother’s suicide and her dad’s remoteness; in the course of the play she manages to throw herself in his way with such force that he can’t help relating to her. This is one of those plays in which the stylization (if you care to call the playwright’s grandstanding “stylization”) is supposed to justify the characters’ behaving in ways in which no one in the history of the world has ever behaved, and the inevitable reconciliation of father and daughter – which, for reasons not worth going into, takes place in Russia – is meant to be heartwarming enough to excuse the mess that’s preceded it. Given how dreadful the play is, you have to admire the actors, who include Michael Chernus, Jessica DiGiovanni, and Rosie Perez as the popular author whose novels keep the company solvent, for coming across as human beings. (Clearly the director, Leigh Silverman, deserves some credit.) And Hyde Pierce, that master of high comedy, attacks his juicy role with gusto yet without overstatement. Hyde Pierce manages a New York stage appearance every season and it’s always a mistake to miss him, whether as the theatre-loving homicide cop investigating a murder during a play’s Boston tryout in the musical Curtains (a real charmer of a performance) or as the Molière-style playwright in the verse farce La Bête (opposite the prodigious Mark Rylance) or in the revival of the rarely produced Samson Raphaelson comedy of manners Accent on Youth (a misbegotten production, alas). Years ago, when Hyde Pierce bantered weekly with Kelsey Grammer on Frasier, I dreamed of seeing him with Christine Baranski in Noël Coward’s Design for Living. He’s too old for either of the male roles in that play now, but he elevates everything he does. If only Close Up Space required a little less elevation.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review, The Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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