Monday, October 24, 2016

Minimalists: New Plays by Simon Stephens and Steve Martin, and Camelot in Westport

Denis Arndt and Mary-Louise Parker in Simon Stephens' Heisenberg, at New York's Manhattan Theatre Club. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

In his two-hander Heisenberg, Simon Stephens sets out to provide a dramatic illustration of Heisenberg’s principle that the more precisely you measure an object, the more it eludes your attempts. His guinea pigs are Alex Priest (Denis Arndt), a seventy-five-year-old Irish butcher and lifelong bachelor residing in London, and Georgie Burns (Mary Louise Parker), a transplanted American thirty-three years his junior who approaches him in the street, a complete stranger, and kisses him on the neck – an action that occurs just before the play begins. Georgie explains that from behind Alex looked so much like her recently deceased husband that she couldn’t help herself; she also identifies herself as a waitress at London’s legendary restaurant Ottolenghi. In their second encounter, at his shop, she recants, insisting that everything she’s told him was a lie. Now she says that she works at a receptionist in an elementary school, that her husband left her and their son has emigrated to America, cutting off all contact with her. After Georgie and Alex become lovers, she asks him for money to look for her son in Hackensack, his last known location. Did she decide to try to get money out of Alex after sleeping with him, or was he a mark she targeted from the outset?

Heisenberg has a lot of charm, much of it deriving from Stephens' gift for penning elliptical dialogue – his breakthrough play was the magnificent adaptation of Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – and much of it, in Mark Brokaw’s production for Manhattan Theatre Club, from the interplay of the two actors, who played these parts last season when the play debuted off Broadway. Playing a man whose withdrawal from the game of romance since his fiancée abandoned him for another man half a century earlier turns out to be less definitive than he believes – he soon discovers he still has the capacity for sexual wonder and emotional engagement – the Canadian Arndt balances a straight-arrow, no-nonsense persona against whimsy and wit. As a woman who reveals everything she feels but whose version of events, like her impulses, doesn’t stand still, Parker is at her freshest and funniest. Parker is a marvelously inventive performer who always skirts the line beyond which acting becomes mannerism. (And it may be that she’s most apt to cross that line when she runs out of inspiration: I saw her Tony Award-winning portrayal of the mathematical prodigy in Proof after she’d been playing it for months, and it had frozen into affectation.) When she’s working on all cylinders, as she is here, she’s a marvel to behold – and to listen to, as she plays innumerable changes on Stephens’ lines.

The performers and the text are the whole show. Mark Wendland’s set is a bare arena containing two tables and two chairs, and though time passes and the locales change, their costumes (by Michael Krass) stay the same. The only piece of visual trickery is that the orchestra at the Samuel J. Freedman Theatre is mirrored by a second seating area on the other side of the actors. Those in the orchestra look up at the actors; the viewers seated on the stage look down on them. This gimmick is supposed to have something to do with providing more than one perspective, but this idea doesn’t work in practice, and neither, really, does the play as a dramatic experiment of the Heisenberg theory. Some of the British two-handers that have attempted to find theatrical equivalents for theoretical ideas, like Nick Payne’s Constellations and Liam Borrett’s This Is Living, have been more successful than Heisenberg; still, the process has lent Stephens’ play a highly pleasing playfulness. And it wraps up in a contemporary-fairy-tale romanticism, like Lanford Wilson’s Talley’s Folly. Its superficiality isn’t too much of a letdown.

Sophina Brown & Arden Myrin in Steve Martin's Meteor Shower at New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre. (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The new absurdist comedy by Steve Martin, Meteor Shower, currently at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, is also light, and of course, as any Martin fan might have predicted, it’s very, very silly. In Ojai, California, Norm (Patrick Breen) invites his tennis buddy Gerald (I saw Josh Stamberg, standing in for Craig Bierko) and his wife Laura (Sophina Brown) to join him and his wife Corky (Arden Myrin) for dinner and to look at a meteor shower from their patio. The men haven’t met each other’s wives before, and from the outset there’s an odd, uncomfortable vibe. Are the guests seducers, destroyers, perhaps even aliens? Martin presents the scenes in non-linear fashion, sometimes repeating part of the narrative but changing the point of view and, in the second act, even altering the plot. But aside from providing a generalized, Saturday Night Live-ish burlesque on southern California lifestyles – Norm and Corky, trained by their therapists, are careful to assuage each other’s wounded sensitivities, so every small bruising of the ego is followed immediately by a series of exchanged affirmations – the play doesn’t have much going on beneath the jokes. It’s very funny, though, and the director, Gordon Edelstein, keeps it moving fast. And the production, with set design by Michael Yeargan, costumes by Jess Goldstein and lighting by Donald Holder – old pros all – is effortlessly elegant. Best of all are the actors, especially Breen (whom I admired last season in Dada Woof Papa Hot at Lincoln Center) and Brown, who makes Laura’s sensuousness hilariously sinister.

Britney Coleman and Stephen Mark Lukas in Camelot at Connecticut's Westport Country Playhouse. (Photo: Carol Rosegg)

Westport (Connecticut) Country Playhouse’s Camelot comes in the form of an adaptation by David Lee that reduces the large ensemble to nine actors. Lee has cut King Pellinore, Merlyn, Nimue, Morgan Le Fey, and, not counting the French émigré Lancelot, all but three or sometimes four or maybe five knights, one of whom has inexplicably changed his name from Dinadan (in the original) to Dinadin. The continually shifting number of knights of the Round Table isn’t the only source of bafflement. Lee has grafted on not one but two frames. A troupe of commedia dell’ arte players cavort noisily, removing their masks to play the characters in the story and otherwise popping up at the most inopportune times – for instance, disrupting Arthur’s initial tête-à-tête with Guenevere by providing extraneous back-up for the “Camelot” number. And a boy (Sana Sarr) tells the story through King Arthur fantasy figures.

I’ve seen some terrible productions of musicals that are close to my heart, but none has been any worse than this one, which is miserably staged (by Mark Lamos), choreographed (by Connor Gallagher) and acted (by almost everyone). Robert Sean Leonard, an actor for whom I generally have nothing but praise, isn’t awful, but he looks conspicuously uncomfortable, even though this isn’t his first musical. (He was a superb Harold Hill on Broadway in Susan Stroman’s revival of The Music Man.) Most of the time he just walks through the role; he only rises to the occasion during “How to Handle a Woman” and the last scene, where he knights Tom, the little boy who has run away from home to join the now-defunct Round Table and sends him off to disseminate the story of Camelot and its great failed experiment in justice. (I doubt that the musical’s authors, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, had plastic toys in mind for Tom’s mission.) As Guenevere, Britney Coleman has a pretty voice but she delivers her songs as if she were performing them in the talent-show section of a beauty contest. The Lancelot, Stephen Mark Lukas, hits the notes, but he has an unpleasant tremulous delivery, not to mention a lousy French accent that appears and disappears without warning. Patrick Andrews summons up some wit to play Mordred, and it’s a relief that his energy isn’t exhausting, like that of the trio of jousting knights (Mike Evariste, Brian Owen and Jon-Michael Reese), who engage in a truly disgraceful scenery-chewing competition. The only person associated with this show who emerges unscathed is the set designer, Michael Yeargan (again), whose work is both clever and stylish: the castle backdrop is a tribute to the great modernist pioneer Adolph Appia. I spent a lot of time looking at that drop.

– 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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