Monday, August 15, 2016

Issues: And No More Shall We Part and Wild

Jane Kaczmarek and Alfred Molina in And No More Shall We Part. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

In And No More Shall We Part, the final show at Williamstown’s Nikos Stage this summer, Jane Kaczmarek and Alfred Molina play a married couple, Pam and Don, struggling with her decision to commit suicide after her treatment has failed to halt the progress of her cancer. She is resolute, while he is reluctant, but against his better judgment he’s agreed to help her. The play begins on the night she has earmarked as her last and flashes back to the day she first broached the subject with him; their most volatile argument on the topic; and the special last dinner he’s arranged for her, when he learns that – against his express wishes – she’s cancelled the invitation to their grown-up kids (fearing that including them might make them legally liable for aiding her in taking her own life).

Molina and especially Kaczmarek give measured, intelligent performances under Anne Kauffman’s direction, but the drama itself, by the Australian playwright Tom Holloway, is painfully banal and uninspired. I’m sure Holloway is sincere and has deep feelings about the material, but he’s got nothing to contribute to the subjects of assisted suicide and the trauma of bidding farewell to a loved one except warmed-over sentiments. The two actors’ best efforts don’t produce much more in the way of character than Pam’s steadfastness and exhaustion, Don’s terror of abandonment and tendency to mask the brutality of the truth; Holloway doesn’t even provide a sense of what their various relationships with their two children might be like, since the kids, offstage presences, are merely a device. (The play doesn’t bother to tell us how the kids responded to the news of their mother’s decision, or what it might have been like for them – or for Pam – to say their ultimate goodbyes.) Since it’s a realist play, these pretty obvious omissions are a little bizarre. Moreover, the placement of the flashbacks feels random. The single moment in the play that’s truly poignant, i.e., poignant because of the way it’s been created and not because of the subject matter, is one where, after Pam, having taken the pills, persuades Don to leave her alone in bed to drift off over a book, and he camps outside the closed bedroom with his hand caressing the door. (The idea is that he won’t re-enter until the morning, when he can report truthfully that he simply came in and found her dead.) At this point, however, Holloway cuts to the flashback of their last meal together, which undercuts the emotional effectiveness of the image of Molina with his hand on the door and seems to have no dramatic logic.

The last scene is a twist that cancels out most of what’s preceded it. It’s such an odd narrative choice that when the play ends abruptly immediately afterwards, you get the sense you’re at a movie where the reels got switched. Williamstown’s artistic director, Mandy Greenfield, has made a strong choice in the last couple of years to alter the festival’s focus after decades of (mostly) revivals; this is the fourth new play I’ve seen there this season. (Their revivals were limited to Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo, and Wendy Wasserstein’s The American Daughter, which is closing out the summer on the mainstage.) It’s a noble initiative but risky; you have to have a lot of faith to think you can find four new works worthy of being performed by one of America’s premier regional theatres. I’d say that two of the four, Cost of Living and The Chinese Room, were mixed bags but I was glad I saw both of them; And No More Shall We Part, however, like Romance Novels for Dummies, isn’t really a step up from a Lifetime movie. I’m sure Greenfield and her script readers looked long and hard for plays to fill these slots, but after all, the average New York theatrical season doesn’t produce four new plays of real quality.

Jack Farthing and Caoilfhionn Dunne in Wild. (Photo: Stephen Cummiskey)

Mike Bartlett’s Wild, which ran at London's Hampstead Theatre over the summer, is a finely etched absurdist comedy built around the Edward Snowden affair. The protagonist is called Andrew, but Jack Farthing, who gives an impeccable dry-eyed performance in the part, emulates Snowden’s straight-edge, nerdy look and underscores the qualities Bartlett has imported from the real Snowden: the earnestness, the naïve idealism, the humorlessness. In real life Snowden can come across as simultaneously stupefying and touching; Bartlett, working in satirical mode, strips away the touching quality and portrays Andrew as a dupe whose arc in the play is a gradual discovery of his own powerlessness and his blinkered perception of the complexly corrupt and deceptive workings of the world.

The setting is a Moscow hotel to which Andrew has been transported by an unnamed organization that has offered him support in the wake of his exposing the U.S. government’s surveillance of ordinary citizens. It’s constructed as a series of two-character scenes that culminates in a three-hander. The opening exchange takes place between Andrew and a young woman (Caoilfhionn Dunne) whose aim appears to be to persuade him to turn himself over to her organization – effectively to act as its poster boy. He continues to claim that because he has something they need he can maintain his independence; her agenda is to dissolve his confidence by proving to him that he’s leapt into the void, or the wild, where none of his old bourgeois assumptions pertains and none of his middle-class Yankee safety nets operates any longer. Their conversation has a distinctly Alice in Wonderland feel, and the distance between them is emphasized by the stylistic difference between the way Bartlett has written the two characters: Andrew plays straight man to the Woman’s loony, high-flying high-comic persona. When he asks her name, she says it’s Miss Prism, the name of the governess in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, the funniest and most famous of all high comedies. The second scene introduces the Man (John Mackay), who tells Andrew that he represents the organization and professes to have no knowledge of the Woman. He’s more sinister than she is, and his presence shifts the play into a sort of absurdist version of a John le Carré thriller.

King Charles III, Bartlett’s fantasia about Prince Charles’ ascension to the throne of England, made him one of today’s hottest young British playwrights, but I think Wild is a better play, with a dazzling use of language. (For all its cleverness in drawing on Shakespeare, King Charles III was disappointingly earthbound in its appropriation of blank verse.) And as Andrew’s handlers systematically remove all of his delusions, the play becomes increasingly and thrillingly like a verbal high-wire act performed by a trio of admirable actors – especially Dunne, to whom Bartlett has given the best speeches. And not just verbal: James Macdonald’s production ends with a coup de théâtre that is more audacious than anything I’ve ever seen executed on any stage. His cohort in pulling it off is the brilliant set designer, Miriam Buether. The audience emerging from the Hampstead the night I saw the show was a perfect tableau of dropped jaws.

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 Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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