Monday, January 25, 2016

Ghosts: The Body of an American and Our Mother’s Brief Affair

Michael Cumpsty and Michael Crane in The Body of an American, at the Hartford Stage. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Dan O’Brien’s The Body of an American, currently playing at Hartford Stage, has already been performed at Portland Center Stage in Oregon and at the Gate in London; it’s won four different playwriting awards and is bound for New York. Yet it still feels like a work in progress – like ideas for a play that O’Brien hasn’t worked through. He based it on a series of interactions with journalist Paul Watson, first on e-mail and then during a visit he made to Watson in the Arctic in 2010. Watson reported on war zones throughout the world for The Toronto Star and The Los Angeles Times and early in his career, in 1994, won the Pulitzer Prize for a photograph he took of a dead American soldier, Sergeant William Cleveland, in Mogadishu. (He retired from The Toronto Star last year.) But the play, a two-hander, can’t make up its mind whether it’s about Watson (Michael Cumpsty) or about O’Brien (Michael Crane) writing a play about Watson. The first seems an eminently worthy idea, the second a self-indulgence – especially since, for all of Dan’s claim of identification with Paul, they don’t seem remotely comparable. Considering what Paul has seen in Somalia, Rwanda, Iraq and other places, Dan’s stories about his alienation from his family and his brother’s depression, and in particular his feelings of inferiority in Paul’s presence, his sense that he’s somehow been bested by this reporter, come across as self-aggrandizing and distasteful.

It’s Paul’s experiences that hold you through this full-length one-act (it runs 95 minutes), even though O’Brien hasn’t figured out how to present them. When they finally meet after corresponding for three years, Dan admits that though he first became aware of Paul when he was interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air after publishing his memoir, Where War Lives, when he picked up the book he found he couldn’t make it through because it was too much, a cacophony of horrors. The only response he could muster was bafflement that, after all he’s seen, Paul hasn’t sunk into despair. It’s odd, then, that O’Brien makes the same mistake as he claims Watson did in the memoir. He inundates the audience with unnerving stories of cruelty and degradation and then doesn’t frame the material, so there’s no way for us to assimilate it or react to it; too often we feel numbed out by what Paul relates to us.

The play is sometimes effective, mostly when it deals with the Cleveland photograph. Paul tells Dan that just before he snapped it, he heard the dead sergeant’s voice warning him, “If you do this, I will own you,” and that has turned out to be true. He’s been haunted ever since, and toward the end of the play he even tries to make contact with Cleveland’s mother, to apologize to her for turning her son into an object and a symbol and (though he doesn’t exactly say this) a highlight of his own journalistic career. Paul’s efforts to reach out to her don’t bear fruit, but he does have a strange phone conversation with Cleveland’s brother, who nixes the idea but has no problem at all with the photo. This isn’t the first dramatic work that centers on a powerful photograph: Chimerica, by the English playwright Lucy Kirkwood, is a fiction suggested by the celebrated image of the Chinese man standing in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square with a bag of groceries, and Roger Spottiswoode’s 1983 film Under Fire, with its Ron Shelton-Clayton Frohman screenplay, culminates in the faking of a shot, by a U.S. photojournalist, of a dead Sandinista leader during the Nicaraguan revolution so that it looks like he’s still alive. The transcendent vividness of great photojournalism is a compelling subject, and even though O’Brien doesn’t have the dramatic savvy or the depth of either Kirkwood or the filmmakers of Under Fire, he’s on soundest ground here.

In some scenes Dan doubles Paul; that is, he picks up some of his lines, which I assume wasn’t the idea of the director, Jo Bonney, but is in the script. Probably this sort-of mirror effect is meant to comment on the overlap between the two characters, but it wouldn’t work even if you bought the overlap. And it’s puzzling that O’Brien didn’t add a couple of actors to share the roles of the other characters who cycle in and out of the play, like Watson’s driver and Terry Gross. Having the actors play not only Paul and Dan but also everyone else doesn’t work either, and not just because Crane (who subs for most of them) doesn’t carry it off. I didn’t like him much as Dan, either; I got weary very early in the evening of his habit of putting quotation marks around his lines. Hip irony is my second least favorite tone, right after sarcasm; they always seem to me to be the last refuges of an unimaginative performer. Cumpsty, a fine actor I’ve seen on stage many times (most memorably as Richard II and as the fortune hunter opposite Cherry Jones in The Heiress) and I always like, gives a solid reading of the role of Paul when the play’s questionable dramatic strategies don’t get in his way.

Linda Lavin in Our Mother's Brief Affair at the Manhattan Theatre Club. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

The last Richard Greenberg plays I liked were The Extra Man and Jenny Keeps Talking, both of which were produced in 1992. So I was very pleasantly surprised to find that the first act of his latest, Our Mother’s Brief Affair, which recently opened on Broadway in a production at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, is completely witty and entertaining. (The MTC’s artistic director, Lynne Meadow, directed.) It’s a high comedy in which a writer in his thirties, a gay man named Seth (Greg Keller) whose job is penning obits for The New York Times, narrates the story of his widowed mother, Anna (Linda Lavin). Anna has been, in Seth’s words, on her death bed for years; her latest flirtation with mortality has brought Seth’s sister Abby (Kate Arrington) in from Los Angeles, where she and her female partner live with their young daughter. (The relationship, at least in Abby’s mind, has recently gone stale.) Anna is a difficult woman without much warmth and with limited interest in the lives of her children – next to none, in fact, in Abby’s life. But her charismatic presence, her elusiveness and her powers of invention are fascinating to both of them – especially, of course, to her writer son. He identifies her to us as “an average situational liar” driven by nostalgia, “but not for anything that ever happened.” So when, one day, she proclaims that she once had a brief liaison with a man who wasn’t their father, Seth is both unsettled and, of course, curious. He’s not disturbed because he thought Anna was devoted to their father, Abe, an angry man who was apparently even more problematic to live with than their mother, but because the affair doesn’t jibe with his own views of her – the reason that almost any man approaching middle age would have for being uneasy with this sudden news. At first he simply doesn’t believe her story; he assumes that it’s another one of her fictions. But Abby confirms it; their father told her about it years ago – about the existence of letters from the lover. So we get a series of flashbacks detailing the affair, with Seth and sometimes Abby, too, interrupting them to comment on them to Anna, who replies to their objections. The effect is like that of the hilarious Brechtian interludes in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall.

Greenberg has devised a knockout of a first-act curtain when Anna reveals the true identity of her lover, a real-life peripheral political figure whom both her children, New York leftist Jews (especially Seth), find appalling. And for the first few minutes of act two, the combination of their indignation and Anna’s astounding indifference to her lover’s public actions – worse, her thrilled reaction to his having played a key role on the political stage – is even funnier. But then Greenberg shifts tones, and when he does he blows it. It’s as if he wasn’t satisfied with crafting an entertainment and wanted to make it count for more. Anna has a long monologue in which she reveals her own secret, which has haunted her all her life, and Greenberg wants us to believe that, in her mind, at least, her guilt has been so great that it equals her lover’s – that the affair is less about sexual satisfaction than it is about mutual forgiveness.

It’s not a very good monologue, but Linda Lavin reads it as if O’Neill had written it. I rushed to see Our Mother’s Brief Affair because I would no more miss willingly a stage performance by Lavin than I’d skip one by Blythe Danner or Rosemary Harris or Cherry Jones. We may be way past the golden age of the American theatre, but you wouldn’t think it when one of these actresses gets a major role; they generate the kind of excitement on stage that earlier generations got from Julie Harris or Shirley Booth or Kim Stanley. Lavin can do wonders with a phrase or even a word: when Anna refers to the Burberry she was wearing when she met her lover on a Central Park bench, Lavin says the brand name as if she were quoting a foreign language. When she dangles the secret of the man’s identity in front of Seth, Lavin smiles with her tongue between her lips, as if she were literally tasting the delight of keeping it hidden just a little longer. Anna plays the role of the alluring cosmopolitan matron, the clandestine femme fatale, even with her own son; you can see why she drives him half-crazy. Lavin is a genius at high-comic banter and she can skate right to the edge of comic absurdism, but she’s not just a brilliant comic actress; she’s also a brilliant dramatic one. (Her portrayal of the writer betrayed by her most gifted student in the 2010 MTC revival of Donald Margulies’ Collected Stories is one of the best performances I’ve ever seen.) She’s amazing when Anna abruptly descends into confusion and melancholy in the middle of the first act, and she makes good on the promise of that moment when she gets to the big revelation speech in the second act. It’s a spectacular piece of acting.

Meadow’s production has an appealing litheness, and both the men, Keller and John Procaccino as both Abe and the lover in flashbacks, do very well. Procaccino has a big, square face and matching football-player shoulders, and I’ve seen him in plenty of plays and TV shows (he played the actor Vladimir Sokoloff in Richard Nelson’s marvelous play about the Russians in post-WW2 New York, Nikolai and the Others). Kate Arrington is less successful with the role of Abby, mostly, I think, because of an unfortunate vocal affect that makes her sound like a bitchy little girl. The main reason to see the play is, of course, Lavin, in a role that Greenberg might have created for her. But there’s so much good writing here that, for the first time in decades, I’m really looking forward to his next play.

– 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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