Monday, July 9, 2012

Playwrights of Promise: Lucy Boyle and Mike Bartlett

Heather Lind & Blythe Danner in The Blue Deep
In The Blue Deep, which just concluded a two-week run at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, Blythe Danner plays Grace, a recent widow whose daughter Lila (Heather Lind) comes for an unannounced visit to their country house in Sag Harbor after walking out on her boy friend in L.A. Grace, who runs an art gallery in Manhattan, is impatient with Lila’s tentative, waffling lifestyle – she hasn’t settled on a career – but the real conflict between them turns out to be over their responses to Lila’s father Bill’s cancer and eventual death. Throughout his illness Grace determined to remain upbeat, while Lila’s grief (in Grace’s opinion) paralyzed her and made her unhelpful, and now Lila insists on dwelling on her sadness rather than moving ahead. However, the truth is that the loss of her husband has so devastated Grace that she’s terrified to think about him; it’s a hole in the middle of her life that she keeps circling, pretending it isn’t there while she’s struggling to avoid being sucked into it. It’s the blue deep.

Boyle has a genuine feel for the way people relate to each other in the day-to-day, an important and underrated skill. You believe in all five of the characters, including Grace’s close friends Charlie (Jack Gilpin) – who was Bill’s oldest and closet buddy – and his wife Bertie (Becky Ann Baker), and the young landscaper, Jamie (Finn Wittrock), who arrives to remove a dead tree from Grace’s yard and stays to ask Lila out. Boyle writes mock-erotic banter for Charlie and Roberta that reads as a series of grace notes commenting on the solidity and give of a good marriage. And Amy Herzog, whose 4000 Miles I reviewed here two weeks ago, should take a look at the scenes between Lila and Jamie, which demonstrate an understanding of young women and men and their screwed-up attempts to make romantic connections.

Heather Lind & Finn Wittrock
The play is marvelous around the edges; it’s the center that doesn’t work. The only relationship that you don’t buy – at least, not all the way – is the one between Grace and Lila. The friend I brought to the performance pointed out as we drove away that the problem with the play is that it’s so much in Lila’s point of view that Grace’s behavior is skewed; her treatment of her daughter is thornier and more unkind that you can accept as plausible. Also Boyle fumbles the big issues by overstating them and overlaying poetic sections and heavy-handed symbolism that threatens to crush this small, delicate drama. First there’s the weird form of exercise Grace takes in the pool (her personal trainer calls it “poolades”), which the director, Bob Balaban, stages so that Danner, in a modified scuba suit, is suspended by ropes above the downstage pool area. (The imaginative set design is by Andrew Boyce and Takeshi Kata.) I assume that the flying apparatus is meant to visualize what we’d see if we could look down into the water while suggesting Grace’s efforts to keep herself afloat above the symbolic blue deep. (Danner, slim and radiant in her late sixties, looks exquisite dangling from these ropes, but the specifics of this image are head-scratchers.) Then, Grace keeps Bill’s ashes in a cat’s-face cookie jar. Early in the second act all the characters get stoned and Jamie, in search of an appropriate snack, comes onto the porch with the jar (he saw Lila with it earlier and, of course, mistook its purpose) and drops it by accident, smashing it and scattering the remains. The obviousness of the writing of Grace’s repressed grief over-prepares us for her response to the shattering of the jar, which forces her to confront all the emotion she’s been tamping down for the past year, and she falls apart, frantically searching under the porch for shards of bone – remnants of her husband that (to her mind) are still recognizable. Of course her fit body deserts her at this point under attack from her psyche: she throws out her back and when her daughter rushes out to scoop her up, she lies in Lila’s lap weeping and giving voice to all the emotions she’s been evading. Lila has her own mini-breakdown over Jamie’s little accident with the jar, growing increasingly more upset when she can’t Super-Glue the pieces together so that it looks once more like a cat. Both these symbolic actions are overstated, and they both make the same point. Grace insists that Lila continue the search under the porch, but the idea upsets her; she can only do it with Jamie holding onto her legs, symbolically offering her the emotional support that clearly her old boy friend couldn’t.

director Bob Balaban
Even given the impulse to forgive a talented young playwright who’s still working through dramaturgical issues, all of this hammering would be far less tolerable in a less effective production. Though he’s mostly known as a character actor (Gosford Park, Capote), Balaban is also a superb director with an unerring instinct for tonal balance, a fine eye, and a marvelous touch with actors. All of these virtues were apparent early on in his directing career, in his 1989 Gothic coming-of-age comedy Parents (a true original, and a neglected gem). He keeps steering the play toward naturalism, underplaying as best he can the three lumpy poetic speeches that Heather Lind is stuck with and encouraging the actors to overlap dialogue to make it as casual-sounding as possible. (It’s possible that the overlapping was Boyle’s idea; whoever came up with it deserves credit.) He can’t fix these speeches so that they don’t sound like set pieces, and the actress, who is otherwise excellent, doesn’t pull them off; he can’t minimize the symbolism. But he lightens it up, and his staging has an easy gracefulness. There’s a lovely scene near the end of act one when, returning to an empty house after their date, Jamie and Lila linger in the yard. Jamie leans in for a kiss, Lila slips deftly out of reach, and he bounces back against the screen door. For the next few minutes he keeps trying to position himself for that kiss. Then, to his amazement, she un-self-consciously strips down to her underwear for a moonlight swim in the pool, and he’s so knocked off balance and so turned on that he trips over himself trying to get out of his own clothes. (It’s the funniest image of erotic clumsiness I’ve seen since the teenage boy in the opening sequence of Jaws who’s so drunk that he can’t pull off his pants fast enough to join the luscious adolescent-dream girl in the ocean.)

The entire cast is terrific. Lind’s and Wittrock’s work here reinforces my positive first impressions of them in, respectively, the Al Pacino Merchant of Venice (Lind played Jessica) and the recent Broadway revival of Death of a Salesman (Wittrock played Happy). Wittrock is particularly charming as the unassuming townie who’s working, not very happily, in his dad’s landscaping business before returning to Yale to complete his Masters in forestry – and whose concern for the environment prompts him to carry around his drinking water in an inconvenient glass bottle. Baker and Gilpin, two of the most effortlessly skillful character actors around, give delightfully offhand performances. And not surprisingly, Danner, outfitted by Mimi O’Donnell in summer clothes that accentuate both her throwaway aristocratic style and her marvelous bone structure, is glorious. In one scene Charlie tells an anecdote about a mushroom trip he and Bill took together in Baja when they were young men; in another Lila begins to cry as she recalls her father. In both these moments Danner makes Grace’s face look like a mask pulled so tight over her unwelcome emotions that she’s in physical discomfort. “OK, OK, it was bad for us,” she admits reluctantly to her daughter, “but let’s not dwell” – and you get the sense that she wants to pull herself out of her skin. Then, when she falls apart in act two, Danner gets to pull out all the stops. I first saw Danner on stage in her breakthrough role in Butterflies Are Free on Broadway when I was a college student and I’ve been in thrall to her ever since. Those of us who live close enough to the Berkshires to attend Williamstown shows regularly were fortunate in being able to see her act there summer after summer in the eighties and nineties. Nowadays her live performances are rarities, but she’s still, I think, our greatest stage actress. The Blue Deep has much to recommend it, but the fact that it showcases Danner would in any case be more than enough reason to celebrate.

James Macdonald's production of Mike Bartlett's Cock
Mike Bartlett, the author of the British import Cock, currently in production at the Duke on 42nd Street in New York, writes sharp realist dialogue, and the play is an intriguing exploration of ambivalent sexuality. The protagonist, John (Cory Michael Smith), is a young homosexual who, during a break from his live-in lover (Jason Butler Harner), sleeps with a woman (Amanda Quaid) for the first time. When he and his lover reconcile, John finds that he doesn’t want to lose either of them. What’s wrong with the play is that Bartlett has embedded the realism in an abstracted, absurdist frame, underscored by James Macdonald’s direction (he also staged it at the Royal Court in London), that is distracting and fairly baffling. Except for John none of the characters, including the lover’s father (Cotter Smith), has a name, and the actors are restricted to a tiny space in the round without furniture. So no one gets to sit down for an hour and forty minutes, and the poor actors inevitably run out of things to do with themselves. The only one of the quartet who comes off well is Cotter Smith, who is touchingly understated as a man who has likely grown more emotionally expressive since his wife’s death. Cory Michael Smith is cast well, Quaid doesn’t appear to be, but both are hamstrung by the staging. On the other hand, Harner takes immediately to the phony stylization and gives an irritatingly mannered performance. I don’t know Bartlett’s other work, which hasn’t made it to this side of the Atlantic (it includes a stage version of Chariots of Fire and an acclaimed recent play called Love, Love, Love), so I can’t say if the style of Cock is a misbegotten experiment or indicates an anti-realist predilection, but the tension between the dialogue and everything that surrounds it is very odd indeed.

– 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 ReviewThe 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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