Monday, July 13, 2015

Williamstown Season Openers: Off the Main Road and Legacy

Kyra Sedgwick and Howard W. Overshown in Off the Main Road. (All photos by T .Charles Erickson)

William Inge had four Broadway hits in the 1950s and won an Academy Award for his 1961 screenplay Splendor in the Grass. But then his star faded, and when he killed himself in 1973 his contributions to the American theatre had been relegated to second-tier status. Over the past decade, though, there has been a renewal of interest in his work. Picnic, Bus Stop and Come Back, Little Sheba are now revived with relative regularity, and one of his last plays, Natural Affection, got a fine production off Broadway a couple of seasons ago. And now the Williamstown Theatre Festival has chosen for its mainstage season opener a previously unproduced Inge drama called Off the Main Road from the early sixties. (Reconfigured for television in 1964 under the title Out on the Outskirts of Town, it co-starred Anne Bancroft and Jack Warden.)

The combination of subject matter – the messed-up lives of unhappy people struggling to break free of destructive old patterns – and psychological acuity tells us from the outset that we’re in Inge territory. The narrative parallels the lives of a mother and daughter. Faye Garrit (Kyra Sedgwick) has rented a cabin in the woods twenty miles outside St. Louis in an unsuccessful effort to get away from her husband Manny (Jeremy Davidson), a retired baseball player and local hero with a terrifying jealous temper. Her teenage daughter Julia Conroy (Mary Wiseman), who has been boarding at a convent school, moves in with her. (Julia’s father, Faye’s much older first husband, died when Julia was still a baby.) Faye is fed up with Manny but still feels responsible for him and unmoored without him; though her socialite mother, Mrs. Bennet (Estelle Parsons), tries to draw her back to the privileged life she grew up in – a life of country clubs and charities – Faye is too restless for it, and she’s grown past it. Meanwhile Julia falls in love with Victor (Daniel Sharman), the college-student son of their landlady (Becky Ann Baker). Her struggles with love are different from her mother’s: her need for a perfect relationship, one that demands complete commitment and isn’t stained by petty jealousies, eventually leads her away from Vic and toward a religious vocation.

Kyra Sedgwick and Aaron Costa Ganis
Evan Cabnet’s solid production illumines both the virtues of Off the Main Road and its shortcomings. I think it’s about two-thirds of a good play; if Inge had been able to get it produced on Broadway in his lifetime, the revisions that are an inherent part of that process would no doubt have strengthened it. (It feels as if it needs another draft.) The play works well up to the last scene in the first act, when a philandering cabbie named Gino shows up at Faye’s door and seduces her. Gino’s aggressive and insensitive treatment of Faye is a toned-down version of the way the protagonist of his neglected novel Good Luck, Miss Wyckoff, a spinster schoolteacher, is handled by the African American jock who takes her virginity, but in the book the boy’s behavior is motivated by racial anger. In the play the sexual encounter isn’t convincing, not least because Gino is a plot device rather than a character. (Aaron Costa Ganis appears to be trying to find a way to make the role work, but there isn’t one.) He’s there to provide a temporary sexual outlet for Faye and, more importantly, to arouse Manny’s violent jealousy, but the consequences of that development are melodrama. The best parts of act two are Julia’s scenes with Vic and with her mother, especially the post-coital interaction with Vic that follows the intermission. Inge had a kind of genius for writing post-coital scenes (the third act of Picnic, his finest play, opens with two back to back, and they’re real beauties) – for using the exposed nature of this delicate situation to dramatize thoughts and feelings that the characters might otherwise cover up as well as to explore the area of sexual intimacy in a way that perhaps no previous American playwright except Tennessee Williams (who was Inge’s idol and mentor) had. You see it again in Off the Main Road.

Sedgwick is a talented actress with a sometime weakness for overstatement (it was apparent in the TV series The Closer, where she played a Southern-fried detective). As Faye she’s got her sensitivities under control, and she does strong, detailed emotional work. Mary Wiseman, a young Juilliard grad I hadn’t seen before, handles Julia’s unconventional coming of age with tremendous intelligence. As the representative of the oldest generation of Bennet women, the perennially energetic Estelle Parsons is clearly having a grand time, and she gets to wear the most elegant of Paloma Young’s excellent costumes. The writing doesn’t allow much delving beneath the surface of this character, but Parsons has one touching moment, when she asks her undemonstrative granddaughter if she loves her. The most striking performance, however, is given by Jeremy Davidson, who focuses on the ironic tension between Manny’s physical prowess and his emotional weakness. Manny is gentle and solicitous when he isn’t in the throes of one of his dangerous explosions, but during those he’s so deeply in the control of his temper that afterwards he can’t even remember what he did; he’s like a werewolf under the full moon who wakes up with a sort of hangover and blood on his face. In any case, that’s how Davidson plays him.

 Jessica Hecht and Eric Bogosian in Legacy. (Photo: T .Charles Erickson)

Daniel Goldfarb’s new play Legacy, which opened the season in Williamstown’s black box, the Nikos Stage, has a ticklish comic premise. A Philip Roth-like novelist in his mid-sixties, Neil (Eric Bogosian), becomes obsessed with the need for a child and heir and persuades his wife Suzanne (Jessica Hecht), who’s in her forties, to agree to try to have a child. When they have trouble conceiving, their young doctor (Justin Long) suggests they find a young woman to carry her eggs to term, and Suzanne settles on Heart (Halley Feiffer), the most talented student in Neil’s graduate fiction writing class, whom she’s already enlisted to help her organize Neil’s papers. But unbeknownst to Suzanne, Neil and Heart are lovers, and when Dr. Goodman is about to start the procedure to place Suzanne’s fertilized eggs into Heart he discovers that she’s already pregnant (and with twins). That’s the first-act curtain line.

The play has some satirical bite in the first act, though it’s shaky – it’s never as funny as you think it’s supposed to be. And in the second act Goldberg abandons the comedy altogether and we’re suddenly supposed to take the ridiculous situation seriously. I’m all in favor of tonal complexity, but this play is all over the place; Goldfarb hasn’t decided what he wants it to be, and neither has the director, Oliver Butler. The best thing about the show is Justin Long, whose callow, tactless young doctor makes you laugh in all his scenes. Hecht has some quite funny line readings, but her character seems to be made up of bits and pieces from a number of women in Woody Allen’s movies. And age-wise the casting of her opposite Bogosian doesn’t work. It’s not that Hecht, who is fifty, can’t pull off forty-four, or that Bogosian, who is sixty-two, can’t pull off sixty-seven; it’s that the dozen years’ age difference between them doesn’t read as nearly a quarter of a century, so when Neil suggests parenthood to Suzanne, you wait for her to tell him he’s out of his head.

– 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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