Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Dead Ends: Sunset At The Villa Thalia, American Son, and The Spoils

Ben Miles, Elizabeth McGovern, Sam Crane and Pippa Nixon in Sunset At The Villa Thalia. (Photo: Geraint Lewis)

On a trip to London three years ago I saw a ghost play called Bracken Moor that worked moderately well as a thriller (it had some nifty effects). But the venue was a well-known left-wing suburban theatre called the Tricycle, and you really had to stretch to see it as a political work. The main character was a factory owner insensitive to the needs of his workers, but that story was definitely secondary to the ghost story, and the class conflict was entirely superficial. The playwright, Alexi Kaye Campbell, has a new play at the National called Sunset at the Villa Thalia that is more overt about its political leanings but, I would say, just as superficial and almost as preposterous. Set in 1967 and 1976 in a small Greek town, it centers on two couples. Theo (Sam Crane) and Charlotte are a young married couple who have rented a house so he can work on his new play. They have met Harvey (Ben Miles) and June (a blonde Elizabeth McGovern), émigré Americans living in Athens for the moment, in a bar and have invited them over for drinks. Harvey is a State Department “floater” whose work is just about finished in Athens, where, at the end of the act, the junta overtakes the government. Aggressive, seductive with both Charlotte and Theo, he ends up manipulating them into buying the house when he finds out that its owners, Mr. Stamatis (Christos Callow) and his daughter Maria (Glykeria Dimou), are desperate for money to finance their emigration to Australia. When Maria admits, in tears, that she’s reluctant to let her father sell the house because she made a promise to her grandmother, its original owner, that she’d always take care of it, Harvey spins a scenario that convinces her that if she moved to Australia and started a new, hopeful life, she’d be keeping faith with her grandmother rather than betraying her. Maria is persuaded; so is the initially skeptical Charlotte. She and Theo buy the place and in act two, when Harvey and June come by to visit, they’ve been living there for nine years, now with two children. That’s when the chickens come home to roost.

The play is a didactic melodrama in which Harvey stands in for American political bullying and self-interest and Charlotte for left-leaning English liberals who make all the right kinds of noise about democracy and imperialism but conveniently forget all about it when their own interests are at stake. And just in case we haven’t figured out how we’re supposed to read them, these two characters make speeches at each other, especially in the second act. I didn’t believe a word – not Charlotte’s lightning shift to accepting the idea of buying the house, not the fact that the only English phrase Mr. Stamatis can manage is “Thank you, America,” not the second-act scene where Charlotte gets furious at Harvey for teaching Theo and their kids a make-believe Greek dance to a cassette she bought at a local shop because he’s trivializing a culture he doesn’t know anything about. (1976 is pretty early for a rant about cultural appropriation, but that’s not the worst problem with the scene.) And certainly not the climactic scene where, when he finds out that Theo and Charlotte are planning to sell the house and move to Cornwall, he tells them what he’s conveniently learned in town that very day – that Mr. Stamatis lost all his money on a business venture in Australia and died and Maria, heartbroken over not being able to come back to her grandmother’s home in Greece, went mad and probably drowned herself.

Simon Godwin oversaw the National Theatre production, which has all the earmarks of his work – fine staging, beautiful designs (set and costumes by Hildegard Bechtler, lighting by Natasha Chivers), impeccable acting. Miles, one of my favorite actors, gives a robust, entertaining performance as the ugly American, but the best thing about the show is McGovern, who is charming and then heartbreaking as his increasingly uneasy, alcoholic wife. The play itself is worthless.

Tamara Tunie and Michael Hayden in American Son at Barrington Stage. (Photo: Scott Barrow)

American Son is the weighty title of a new play by Christopher Demos-Brown at Barrington Stage Company. In the show, staged by artistic director Julianne Boyd, Kendra (Tamara Tunie), an African-American woman, comes down to a Miami police station in the early hours of the morning to report that her teenage son is missing and learns that he and some friends were stopped by cops but is stymied in her efforts to find out anything more. The opening scene, where she struggles to get a rookie cop (Luke Smith) to ferret out more information for her, sounds like a checklist of racist clichés. Though Kendra is a college professor, Officer Larkin’s questions suggest that her son is a gang member with a police record, and he’s so clumsy that his efforts to be accommodating are transparently strained and untutored. When Kendra’s husband Scott (Michael Hayden), from whom she’s separated, arrives, the clichés start to reverse themselves: he’s white, he’s an FBI agent, and it turns out that their son Jamal has begun to act out in response to his anger at his father for leaving Kendra and an increasing uneasiness at having been educated at expensive private schools where he’s one of only a handful of black kids. By the time the black liaison officer (André Ware) shows up, and the situation involving Jamal has become dire, Demos-Brown has reversed our expectations yet again.

The trouble is that reversed clichés are still clichés, and American Son is a stockpile of them; it isn’t theatre. Of course one can argue that the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown and Eric Garner were tragic examples of the playing out of racial clichés, but a dramatic work has to go farther – it has to make real the lives of human beings whose actions either embody or push back against those stereotypes. Demos-Brown never remotely gets beyond them, though Tunie does her damnedest to ground her role in recognizable reality. Hayden acts so hard that you can’t find a character behind all the affectation. The actors who play the two cops don’t have a chance of making their parts convincing, especially Ware, who’s stuck with one long speech that sounds like a lecture in a sociology class and another that sounds like a police report. It’s a dreadful play.

Jesse Eisenberg and Kunal Nayyar in The Spoils. (Photo: Monique Carboni)

I didn’t see Jesse Eisenberg’s latest play The Spoils in New York but I was able to catch it in its West End run, where he, Kunal Nayyar and Annapurna Sriram – three-fifths of the cast – repeated the roles they created. It’s a baffling work. In The Revisionist Eisenberg wrote for himself the part of an insensitive, self-involved young writer who goes to Poland to visit his grandfather’s cousin, a Holocaust survivor; the story he built around her character was compelling and Vanessa Redgrave was great in the role, but the young American was intolerable, and not in an interesting way. The Spoils repeats the problem and amplifies it, since Ben, the part Eisenberg has created for himself this time around, is indisputably at the center of the play. He’s an independently wealthy New Yorker in his late twenties who was kicked out of NYU’s film theory Master’s program and now mostly sits around getting high and fantasizing about being a documentary filmmaker. His roommate, Kalyan (Nayyar), is a Nepalese business student hoping to score a job on Wall Street. The two young men have become close: Ben, who owns the apartment, refuses to let Kalyan pay rent, and Kalyan – or Bunty, his nickname – is Ben’s confidant, emotional support and apparently only friend. When Ben runs into Ted (Alfie Allen) and learns that he’s engaged to Sarah (Katie Brayben), whom he had a crush on when they were elementary-school classmates, he invites them to dinner with Bunty and his girl friend Reshma (I saw Amani Zardoe, subbing for Annapurna Sriram), with the unstated intention of winning her away from Ted.

Eisenberg can write funny dialogue, and for the first half the combination of the verbal comedy and the energy of the five actors keeps you going. But you’re not sure whether you’re watching a comedy of manners or a redemption tale about an insufferable asshole (who’s also pathologically deceptive and destructive). The most interesting element in the first act is Bunty’s willingness to be a loyal friend to Ben, despite his loathsome social behavior, and a loyal boy friend to Reshma, whose self-confidence borders on vanity and who likes to boss him around. (Ben and Reshma can’t stand each other.) Eisenberg has thrown a number of hilarious details into the mix, like Bunty’s fondness for power point – he prepares a power point presentation for Reshma on football and one for all four of them to introduce the Nepalese dinner Ben has saddled him with the job of cooking.

But act two is as unredeemable as Ben himself, and as it goes from bad to worse we can see that Eisenberg never had any idea what kind of play he was writing. You can sort of understand why Kalyan might put up with Ben, but nothing in the second act – not Ben’s attempt to push himself onto Sarah by recounting a gross sexual dream he had about her when they were children, not the way he turns on Bunty – is remotely plausible. I lost all hope that Eisenberg would find his elusive play right after intermission. At the dinner party Ben claims he has been working on a documentary that contains a scene about a homeless man, an upscale passerby and her dog, and Sarah is intrigued. We know that no such footage exists, even though Ben claims that a rough cut of the film is under consideration at a couple of film festivals – that the scene is something Bunty observed on the street and happened to mention to Ben. But when Sarah asks to look at the sequence, Ben goes out and stages and films it so he’ll have something to impress her with. Of course it doesn’t work; she immediately spots that it’s been staged. So would any high school kid, since it looks like something a high school kid might have come up with.

Eisenberg is one of my favorite young actors, and in movies his work keeps getting better. (He and Jason Segel partnered each other brilliantly in last year’s The End of the Tour, as the Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky and the writer David Foster Wallace.) Eisenberg is witty as Ben, but the character dead-ends the performance. There’s a slippery art to constructing unbearable characters who nonetheless manage to command our attention, and I guess that’s Eisenberg’s aim, but for all his talent he hasn’t mastered it. He might want to try something else the next time around.

– 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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