Monday, July 28, 2014

Transcriptions: A Small Family Business, Venus in Fur, 700 Sundays

Nigel Lindsay (front) in A Small Family Business, at London's National Theatre (Photo: Alastair Muir)

The National Theatre is currently reviving Alan Ayckbourn’s 1987 play A Small Family Business, and the NT Live series enabled audiences to look at it worldwide last month. It’s a play about the dedication to greed and self-interest associated with the eighties, set among middle-class Londoners over the course of the week during which Jack McCracken (Nigel Lindsay) takes over his father-in-law’s furniture business, which employs a number of his relatives. Jack’s watchwords for the company’s new era are honesty and trust, but he finds out, bit by bit, that every one of his new business associates is corrupt in some way, and that the creed of compromise has spread in some way even to his wife (Debra Gillett) and daughters (Rebecca McKinnis and Alice Sykes). The revelations of corruption grow more outrageous as the play goes on, and finally – inevitably – Jack himself is swallowed up by it.

The play is clever, but once you cotton onto its scheme, the surprises become routine – that is, they stop being real surprises. I liked watching the actors, especially Gawn Grainger as the retired, semi-demented father-in-law, Ken; Matthew Cottle as the blackmailing store detective; Gerard Monaco as all five members of a shady Italian family; and Amy Marston as Jack’s hysterical, masochistic sister-in-law, Harriet. I particularly admired Marston because she does so much with what is, as written, a ridiculous caricature. Ayckbourn’s trademark is farce grounded in realism that spirals into something akin to the absurd, and he’s such a sharp observer and so highly sophisticated a farceur that he generally makes it work, but I didn’t buy Harriet’s behavior from the outset. The production, competently directed by Adam Penford, boasts a supreme set design by Tim Hatley that fills the massive Olivier stage. Each act begins with the exterior of a luxurious two-tiered house that revolves to expose the interior – that’s just showing off, though the stagecraft is certainly fun to watch. The trick is that the interior stands in for three separate settings (Jack’s house initially, then Ken’s and finally Harriet’s) and in the second act we see all three at the same time, with different rooms evoking different residences simultaneously, and at increasing speed. The working out of this theatrical gimmick is the high point of the play.

Emmanuelle Seigner and Mathieu Amalric in Roman Polanski's Venus in Fur

Roman Polanski has filmed the David Ives play Venus in Fur in French, with Mathieu Amalric as Thomas, who’s written a stage adaptation of the notorious nineteenth-century Sacher-Masoch novel of the same title, and Polanski’s wife Emmanuelle Seigner as Vanda, the imposing actress who walks in late for an audition for the lead but persuades Thomas to let her read – and then, in a variety of ways, knocks his socks off. It’s an audacious, brilliant comedy, and when it was done in New York Nina Arianda gave one of those performances that, in Broadway’s glory days, would have become legendary. Watching the movie, I realized that the material doesn’t soar without a magical actress in the lead. Seigner has an amusing, if somewhat forced, tough-broad quality (I would have dispensed with the gum-chewing), and her shift to the seductive high comedy of the scenes she plays from Thomas’s dramatization is fun. (His assistant having departed for the day, he reads opposite her himself.) But in her hands, and Polanski’s, the play keeps turning into camp. And except for the subjective-camera opening, the filmmaking doesn’t have much of a spark, though Pawel Edelman lights it sumptuously. Still, I had a pretty fair time at it until the twist at the end, which is so opaque that I doubt anyone who hasn’t seen or read the play will have any idea what the hell is going on.

Billy Crystal in 700 Sundays

HBO telecast Billy Crystal’s one-man show 700 Sundays a couple of months ago, giving those of us who hadn’t caught it in its brief Broadway run a chance to see it. It’s ostensibly about his relationship with his father, who died when he was a boy – he figures they had roughly seven hundred Sundays to spend time together – but it would be more accurate to call the play an extended piece about family, and really Crystal goes beyond even that broad boundary. But whatever its structural flaws, and despite its occasional sentimentality and the fact that it goes on about twenty minutes too long (Crystal doesn’t seem to know when to ring down the curtain), it’s very enjoyable. As anyone who’s watched him host the Academy Awards knows, Crystal is a performer of staggering stamina and invention, and for nearly two hours he holds the audience in thrall.

– 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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