Monday, July 14, 2014

Playwrights: Benefactors, A Great Wilderness, The Normal Heart, A Little Night Music

Walton Wilson, David Adkins, and Barbara Sims in Benefactors (Photo by Emily Faulkner)

Eric Hill’s compelling production of Benefactors at the Berkshire Theatre Group’s Unicorn space in Stockbridge provides audiences with an opportunity to become acquainted with an intelligent, intriguing text by Michael Frayn that doesn’t receive many revivals. (It won the Olivier Award for best new play in 1984.) The play, set between 1968 and 1970, is a four-hander about the relationship between David (David Adkins), an architect with a commitment to providing housing for the poor, and his wife Jane (Corinna May) and their neighbors across the road, Colin (Walton Wilson), a journalist, and Sheila (Barbara Sims). David and Colin have known each other since university, and when they find themselves living in close proximity the two couples and their children are constantly in and out of each other’s houses. Colin is a difficult man with a contrary temperament and a tendency to belittle his wife; self-effacing, easily intimidated, and somewhat in awe of David and Jane, Sheila barely opens her mouth at first when the quartet gets together for dinner. But she begins to spend more and more time hanging out with Jane during the day, and eventually confides her fears that Colin is going to leave her. To help her develop a life of her own, Jane encourages David to hire Sheila as a secretary – to take over the work Jane herself has been doing for him – and the shift ushers in a new phase of their lives.

Frayn sets this story about interpersonal relationships against an era in which young professionals like David with a social conscience are attempting to find ways to help the disadvantaged. His project is a renovation of a south-London neighborhood, and as he contends with the financial problems it involves his plans change shape and become more grandiose. Free to pursue her own interests once Sheila takes over her secretarial burdens, Jane goes to work for a trust that takes a different approach to the same social issue – refurbishment of existing neighborhoods rather than wholesale replacement of old buildings. And the philosophical distance between their points of view that her new job exposes complicates what has become a sort of folie à quatre. Sheila has fallen in love with David, and when Colin uses the information he’s gleaned from his wife to leak a news story about David’s proposed radical changes to the project and incite a protest from the residents, Sheila leaves him and David and Jane take her and her children in.

The narrative develops (as this partial summary suggests) in surprising directions, the dialogue is highly literate, and the fully formed characters are a gift to the lucky actors who get to play them. In the BTG production the two talented actresses, Barbara Sims and Corinna May, offer the key performances as women with contrasting personalities whose roles in their proximate households alter dramatically in the course of two years. (The play is framed as a flashback, with the four characters providing narration.) At first Adkins’s struggle with his accent gets in the way of his acting – it’s an unintended caricature of the way an Englishman speaks – but once you look past it, you see what an admirable job he’s done of getting inside David, who turns out to be the real naïf among the four characters. Only Wilson, as the prickly Colin, is unconvincing. In contrast to these serious portraits of complicated people, he appears to be playacting.

Stephan Amenta and Jeffrey DeMunn in A Great Wilderness (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

I hate to sound like one of those Anglophiles who can’t understand why Americans can’t write like the Brits, but it’s an inescapable fact that English playwrights – Frayn provides an obvious example – understand the elements of dramaturgy that often elude their American counterparts: how to write dialogue that soars off the page, how to structure a play so that its premise pays off in unexpected ways, how to dramatize a theme, how to build individuated, life-like characters. It hasn’t always been the case that Americans can’t manage these challenges, but most of the new American plays leave me baffled. I sat all the way through Will Eno’s The Realistic Joneses without having a clue to what it was supposed to be about or what we were meant to make of the characters. Samuel D. Hunter’s A Great Wilderness, now playing on Williamstown’s small Nikos Stage, has a clear enough theme and you’re drawn in by its strong opening scene: a dialogue between a teenage pastor’s son (Stephan Amenta) whose parents have sent him to a cabin in the Idaho wilderness for gay conversion therapy where he’s the only – and last – camper and his host, an aging, tender-hearted and (we learn) increasingly confused man named Walt (Jeffrey DeMunn) who has been running this enterprise for thirty years. But as soon as the boy, Daniel, wanders off alone into the woods and disappears, the play, too, loses its way. Hunter, like Eno, is a current darling of the American theatrical scene; I saw one of his earlier plays, A Bright New Boise, in its Boston incarnation two years ago, and he received much acclaim for The Whale when it played off Broadway season before last. I didn’t see The Whale, but I found A Bright New Boise entirely without structure, and A Great Wilderness is an idea in search of a play.

What Hunter is clearly after in A Great Wilderness is a sympathetic exploration of people whose vision of the world is different from his own, and he certainly avoids pointing fingers at them. (Only the brusque local ranger, played by Tasha Lawrence, who supervises the search for the missing boy comes across as a caricature, even though Hunter goes out of his way to make her, in the last analysis, broad-minded.) But he retains an obvious distance from them. Walt, whose mission to bring sexually confused adolescents into the light of God as a means of compensating for the suicide of his own gay son, and whose burial of his own homoerotic impulses resulted in an unhappy marriage; his ex-wife and friend Abby (Mia Dillon), who has worked alongside him for many summers; her husband Tim (Kevin Geer), who blames the culture for leading so many kids into sin; Eunice (Mia Barron), Daniel’s mother, who concludes that, given his emotional abandonment by his conservative father and the odds against his ever finding happiness, it would be better if he died out in the wilderness; and even Daniel himself, who has a conversion experience in the wild – all of these characters come across as deluded in some way (Abby less so than the others) that neither Hunter nor, as a consequence, we can empathize with. He places us in the position of feeling superior to them, even though we can see that he wants us to feel their pain. They’re all, in a sense, charity cases for him, and the fact that he doesn’t intend them to be doesn’t help; like the characters sitting in the lunch room setting of A Bright New Boise, they represent a failure of sympathetic imagination. We come closest to Walt, whose world is falling apart because in the course of the play he comes to see his entire mission as a shambles, but I suspect that the extent to which we’re connected to him derives more from DeMunn’s felt-through performance than from Hunter’s writing. Eric Ting’s direction doesn’t fill in what Hunter has omitted – like an ending – and among the supporting cast only Amenta and Dillon manage to suggest believable characters. Geer is really awful: he seems so remote from the man he’s playing that Tim comes across as right on the cusp of being mentally challenged.

The fact that A Great Wilderness ends in mid-air – not in that modernist way that Ibsen invented in Ghosts but as if the actors had inadvertently left out the last page of the script – is only one of several ways in which it feels like an early draft of something that the playwright hasn’t thought through. Eunice drives up to Walt’s cabin in a panic (after Daniel has been missing only a few hours) because she’s received a text from him: “I’m gone.” Your mind fills in several ways to interpret that ominous text; when you find out what happened to him, none of them fits because the text no longer makes sense. Through most of the play Walt’s TV remains on, running an ad for the assisted living facility he’s supposed to move into on what appears to be a loop. Hunter also used the overlay of TV footage in A Bright New Boise, and it feels to me like a cheap symbolic device. But here it’s also the single absurdist element in what is otherwise a realist play, so it’s mostly confusing – you wonder why the damn TV never plays anything else, or why the hell someone doesn’t switch the channel. At one moment of crisis, the TV commercial vies four our attention with two overlapping conversations – an argument between Walt and Abby and an argument Eunice is conducting on the phone with her husband – and it’s the only thing you can make out clearly. It’s a problem when, in a play ostensibly about character, only the TV isn’t emitting white noise.

Matt Bomer and Mark Ruffalo in HBO's The Normal Heart (Photo: Jojo Whilden/HBO)

Originally produced in 1985, Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart was one of the pioneering AIDS plays. So the recent HBO film version – adapted by Kramer and directed by Ryan Murphy – is inescapably a period piece about the painful uphill battle waged by Kramer (here called Ned Weeks and played by Mark Ruffalo) and his friends at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis to receive recognition and assistance from Mayor Ed Koch’s office while the disease is escalating and threatening to wipe out their community. You can make allowances for the agit-prop speechmaking and of course you don’t need to make them for Kramer’s perfectly understandable incensed tone, but when you’re sitting through the play your patience only extends so far. Kramer isn’t Brecht and he isn’t Clifford Odets; the big speeches are killers that defy actors who are trying to scale them – in the movie, Joe Mantello and Jim Parsons are the major casualties to Kramer’s rhetoric – and you get worn down by all the shouting. Kramer has provided a cinematic opening, on Fire Island, that brings you into the play, even though it’s a replay of the beginning of the 1990 film Longtime Companion, and even though Kramer’s distanced, anxious observation of the free-for-all gay sex going on all around him seems to suggest an odd prescience, as if he sensed what was about to go down. That may be Murphy’s error and not Kramer’s; he’s not exactly the world’s greatest director. (Some of the scenes have weird, lurching editing rhythms.)

Still, the movie has its virtues, and they’re entirely in the area of performance. Ruffalo doesn’t triumph over all of the problems in Kramer’s creation of an alter-ego hero – the non-stop tirades, the fact that he grows wearisome yet the playwright can’t resist making his colleague’s ouster of him from the GMHC (because his combativeness is alienating everybody) seem like a betrayal and an injustice. But he manages to inhabit the character so persuasively that we accept him as both homosexual and Jewish without any showboating on the actor’s part. And he and Matt Bomer, as the Times style writer Felix Turner – who becomes Ned’s younger lover before succumbing agonizingly to the disease – make a touching opposites match that we believe in from the first. Bomer, the co-star of TV’s White Collar, makes his bones with this sensitively nuanced performance, which is so emotionally (as well as physically) unprotected that it attains a certain nobility. The other actor who has a breakthrough here is Taylor Kitsch as GMHC director Bruce Niles. I loved Kitsch as the full-hearted but self-destructive Tim Riggins on the TV series Friday Night Lights, but he’s such a great-looking jock type that the movies he’s been starred in since the program ended have made him look like he doesn’t have much range. Dyed blonde and much thinner here, he reveals sides that no one would have suspected, especially in a unusually textured drunk scene opposite Ruffalo. It would be a crime if this subtle, imaginative actor got typecast again after the showing he makes here. Julia Roberts gets stuck with the role of the pioneering physician Emma Brookner, confined to a wheelchair as a result of polio, but she plays it with admirable straightforwardness and without sending signals that she’s a movie star slumming in an unglamorous part. Alfred Molina plays Ned’s straight lawyer brother; I like Molina, but you just can’t buy him and Ruffalo as brothers. A number of talented actors pop up in effective cameos: Stephen Spinella as a dying, demented man in the throes of terror; Finn Wittrock (so good as the gay hustler on Masters of Sex last season) as Bruce’s boy friend; Denis O’Hare as the first member of Koch’s administration to take a meeting with the GMHC team; Corey Stoll as a Reagan advisor, who reaches out to Kramer but only, it turns out, for reassurance that AIDS hasn’t touched the heterosexual community. The work of the actors transcends the labored, grandstanding play.

A Little Night Music (photo by Emily Faulkner)

If you love Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 comedy of manners Smiles of a Summer Night, then you may be puzzled by what happens to it in Hugh Wheeler’s book for the 1973 musical A Little Night Music. Wheeler is faithful to Bergman, but he manages to turn the exquisite screenplay about the complications of sexual passion among a group of people in turn-of-the-century Sweden arch. The key scene in the second half, where all the characters gather around the dinner table at old Madame Armfeldt’s country estate and all the tensions among and within them ignite, is the best example. Wheeler has lifted dialogue straight from Bergman, but it’s lost its delicacy and depth in the translation – and I don’t mean the translation from Swedish to English. It sounds as if it had been written for an operetta from the Rudolf Friml-Sigmund Romberg epoch, before Show Boat opened the gates for real drama on the American musical-theatre stage.

The musical is better known, of course, for the Stephen Sondheim score than for Wheeler’s book. The music includes some of the composer’s best melodies and the lyrics are quintessential Sondheim: immensely clever, but sometimes too clever by half. “Send in the Clowns” is magnificent – perhaps the best song he’s ever written – and gets at the heart of the modern high comedy of which Bergman’s film is a golden example, the heartbreak tucked untidily beneath the farce like sheets still rumpled from lovemaking but covered hastily with an elegant quilt. “A Weekend in the Country,” which ends the first act and prepares the way for the rural love games in the second, is a tour de force. But no one should get away with writing a song called “Every Day a Little Death” (about the martyrdom of marriage to an openly unfaithful man), and “The Miller’s Son,” the carpe-diem anthem by the maid Petra imagining the inevitable demise of happiness when youth gives way to domestic compromise, leaves a similar sour taste in the mouth. These songs represent a side of Sondheim I don’t care for: self-consciously wised-up, their bitterness a kind of battle scar that looks like it was painted on to give the impression of worldliness. And no one in my experience has yet made the quintet, with its Brechtian musical commentary on the action, into anything but an affectation and a distraction.

Kate Baldwin and Phillipa Soo (Photo: Emily Faulkner)
But depending on the tonal balance and, naturally, the qualities of the cast, A Little Night Music can be effective in revival, and the Berkshire Theatre Group’s edition, currently playing at the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, is a success. Reid Thompson’s set, consisting mostly of transparent curtains and a wallpaper backdrop in act one and a semi-symbolic depiction of the Armfeldt country estate in the second, makes a virtue of economic necessity. David Murin has given the women in the cast some luscious gowns (though my favorite of his creations is the driving outfit for the peacock of a dragoon, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm). Under Nathan Dame’s direction, the orchestra plays Sondheim’s Mozart- and Strauss-inspired waltzes with brio. The voices are vigorous and most of the performances are excellent. Kate Baldwin, looking gorgeous, lends the Countess Malcolm’s masochistic lines a brittle wit – just as Margit Carlquist does in the Bergman movie – and no one could possibly do more with “Every Day a Little Death.” This is the best work I’ve seen from Baldwin since she played Sharon in the wonderful 2009 Broadway revival of Finian’s Rainbow; after Giant and Big Fish, it’s good to see her in material that gives her the opportunity to show off what she can do. As the lawyer Fredrik Egerman, tied to a much younger wife who won’t have sex with him and longing for the charms of his one-time lover, the celebrated actress Desirée Armfeldt, Gregg Edelman, looking handsome in a Vandyke and summertime suits, finds new ways to phrase the lyrics of “Now” and “You Must Meet My Wife” and his duet with Desirée’s current lover the Count, “It Would Have Been Wonderful.” Phillipa Soo, as the virginal bride Anne Egerman, has a bird-like soprano that’s sweet enough to make you forgive the occasional indistinctness of her diction. Penny Fuller does well with the role of Desirée’s wise, pensive, intractable mother, once the mistress of several rich, titled men (one of whom left her the country expanse), and her swirl of gray-white hair (designed by Jon Carter), gives her the look of an empress. Veterans cast in this part always make more of Madame Armfeldt’s only song, “Liaisons,” than it deserves; the last one was the ageless, irrepressible Angela Lansbury on Broadway five years ago. Graham Rowat is a fine, hilarious Carl-Magnus. I’ve never seen or heard a better Henrik – Fredrik’s repressed, tormented seminarian son – than Matt Dengler. Emma Foley makes a pleasing impression in the small role of Fredrika, Desirée’s – and, we assume, Fredrik’s – fourteen-year-old daughter.

On the other hand, Monique Barbee is too emphatic (and too obviously American) for Petra, and the night I saw the show, at least, though she began “The Miller’s Son” confidently her voice kept quavering off the note in the last verse. And Maureen O’Flynn is an unfortunate choice for Desirée. She reads her lines badly, and she has neither the glamor nor the charisma to suggest why this actress has a storied reputation; when she steps out onto the stage in the high-comedy-within-the-high-comedy (opposite actresses who, for some reason, have been outfitted in underwear), she has zero presence. She does nothing with her half of “You Must Meet My Wife”; I didn’t much like Catherine Zeta-Jones in the Broadway revival (she seemed better suited for hard-boiled than high comedy), but she brought considerably more humor to Desirée’s embroidery on the second verse of this song. O’Flynn’s rendition of “Send In the Clowns” late in the play explains the casting: she has a lovely voice. But her reading of the song is melodrama, not high comedy, and it lacks color – it’s dully pretty, like Judy Collins’s recording. The thing is, you don’t need to be an accomplished singer to sing “Send in the Clowns”: Glynis Johns, the first (and, in my estimation, best) one to do so, wasn’t, and neither was Judi Dench, whose version on the National Theatre tribute PBS ran recently knocked it out of the ballpark. What you do need is first-rate acting chops.

The quintet is tiresome, as usual, though it’s certainly not the fault of the singers (Ashton Heyl, Denis Lambert, Jamilyn Manning-White, Patricia Noonan and Eric Van Tielen), all of whom have splendid instruments. They’re way too young, though; these are supposed to be middle-aged people looking back on the amorous escapades of their youth, and if they aren’t, then the song “Remember?” doesn’t make much sense. And the choreographer, Alex Sanchez, keeps bringing them on to twirl around the principals like wood nymphs; this vague meant-to-be echo of the musical’s roundelay structure almost wrecks the last verse of “A Weekend in the Country.” The director, Ethan Heard, appears more comfortable with the book scenes than he does moving in and out of the numbers; he doesn’t have much of an ear. But he’s generally good with the actors, and the overall strength of the cast is the production’s major asset.

– 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 and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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