Monday, August 21, 2017

Bad Behavior: The Treatment, Gloria, Ink

Aisling Loftus in The Treatment at the Almeida Theatre in London. (Photo: Marc Brenner)

London’s Almeida Theatre revived Martin Crimp’s 1993 play The Treatment in late spring, and I was lucky enough to catch it before it closed. Crimp’s plays are unfamiliar to North Americans, but this is the work of a very gifted playwright – an absurdist comedy roughly in the style of Harold Pinter, but funnier and more sly. Lyndsey Turner’s first-rate production showcased those qualities. In New York City, a young woman named Anne (Aisling Loftus) answers an ad to tell her story to a husband-and-wife producing team (Julian Ovenden and Indira Varma) who are on the lookout for promising film properties. As Anne relates a bizarre tale of a husband who locked her in their apartment, tied her to a chair and gagged her, Jennifer, the female half of the team, adds her own commentary, subtly changing the story to make it more camera-worthy. As the project acquires a screenwriter (Ian Gelder) and a star (Gary Beadle), it undergoes more alterations. Everyone has his or her own take on Anne’s story, including the young intern (Ellora Torchia) in the production company office who winds up playing the leading role in the movie. Eventually we realize that everyone – including Anne – is operating in an entirely self-serving mode, except, ironically, for her notorious husband Simon (Matthew Needham), who is crazy and violent but not toward her, and who is devoted to protecting her from a crazy, violent world. There are no reliable versions of the narrative; everything’s up for grabs, including the truth about whether Anne or Simon is the controlling figure in their marriage. Turner had an excellent cast, including Ben Onwukwe as a blind cab driver and Hara Yannas, doubling as a waitress and a madwoman; Varma, memorable as Ann in the Simon Godwin’s production of Man and Superman at the National, was the standout.

Ellie Kendrick and Colin Morgan in Gloria at the Hampstead Theatre in London. (Photo: Marc Brenner)

Hampstead Theatre’s early-summer show was Gloria, by the American playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, who made a splash here and abroad with An Octoroon. Gloria, first produced on these shores at the Vineyard Theatre, is a satirical take on the New York publishing world. The first act is set in the editorial offices of a once-trendy magazine struggling to ride the vicissitudes of journalism in the age of the internet. Everyone we meet is miserable, the thirtysomethings because they’ve hung out here too long and feel their lives have gone nowhere, the twentysomethings because they’re terrified of turning into the thirtysomethings. Jacobs-Jenkins has a great ear for the way articulate, entitled, expensively educated young people sound when they’re motivated by ambition and envy; Gloria has the funniest nasty dialogue I’ve heard in an American play since Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar – and I think it’s a better play. The first act is perfect and has a hilarious shock curtain. The second act is very entertaining but its second scene, at a West Coast studio, is a bit of a letdown; the playwright’s depiction of narcissism in Hollywood isn’t anywhere near as original as his portrayal of narcissism in Manhattan. Still, act two includes one scene that should become a classic, in which two former employees of the magazine who are writing memoirs jockey for control over how they’re depicted in each other’s books. The Hampstead gave Gloria a typically spiffy and sharp-witted production, directed by Michael Longhurst, with three men (Colin Morgan, Bayo Gbadamosi and Bo Poraj) and three women (Kae Alexander, Ellie Kendrick and Sian Clifford) covering the thirteen roles. The only actor who seemed out of her league was Alexander, though her performance improved in the movie-studio section. 

Bertie Carvel and Richard Coyle in Ink at the Almeida Theatre. (Photo: Marc Brenner)

Ink, which followed The Treatment into the Almeida and is bound for the West End in the fall, is James Graham’s play about Rupert Murdoch’s take-over of The Sun in London in 1969 and the invention of modern populist journalism. Under Rupert Goold’s direction, with a spectacular set by Bunny Christie and gorgeous lighting by Neil Austin, it’s a hell of a show; I saw it on the worst night of London’s surprise June heat wave, without benefit of air conditioning, and I was riveted from start to finish. But the play underneath all of that mesmerizing professionalism is thin and gets thinner as the evening wears on. The first act, which covers the efforts of the brash new editor, Larry Lamb (Richard Coyle) to refurbish the paper and make it relevant to a late-twentieth-century public, has some of the wit and bravado of the early scenes in Citizen Kane. After intermission, though, things get serious. Having entertained us thoroughly with the cockiness and nerve of Lamb and his team, Graham needs to find a way to indicate what we all knew going in: that Murdoch’s vision of a more democratic media led to Fox News and Donald Trump. But Graham doesn’t have the wherewithal for material that wants to go deep. (I was not among the many fans of his political play This House, which got a production at the National.) First he gets mired in melodrama and then the tone of the play becomes polemical. It loses its shape, and by the end you’re not sure what Graham intended by making Lamb and not Murdoch (Bertie Carvel) the protagonist. Presumably at some point in the process he had it in his mind to make Ink about Lamb’s Faustian bargain, but Murdoch is no Mephistopheles; though he gives Lamb carte blanche to go to any lengths to make The Sun more popular than The Daily Mirror, he actually balks at some of his editor’s tactics. Coyle and especially Carvel are superb, and I wouldn’t change a single member of the supporting cast.

– 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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