Monday, August 14, 2017

More New Plays at Williamstown: Actually and A Legendary Romance

Joshua Boone and Alexandra Socha in Actually. (Photo: Daniel Rader)

Both these reviews contain spoilers.

The characters in Anna Ziegler’s two-hander Actually on the Nikos Stage at Williamstown Theatre Festival are Princeton first-year students who hook up in the first weeks of the fall semester and wind up sleeping together when both are considerably under the influence. Amber (Alexandra Socha) is a white Jewish girl who has never thought of herself as especially pretty or been especially popular; her high school experimentation with sex was mostly an attempt to avoid the embarrassment of getting to the end of senior year with her virginity intact, and the boy who initiated her, her best friend’s brother, was aggressive and insensitive. Tom (Joshua Boone) is African American, charming and sexually experienced, and hides his own insecurities under a fa├žade of cockiness. When he shows some interest in Amber, she can’t believe her good fortune, and Tom, always eager for sex but not seeking a relationship, is surprised at the tender feelings she generates in him. But when they go to bed her finely tuned radar picks up something off in his behavior, and she finds the sex too rough. What happens then is unclear since their recollections are different. But after the fact she tells her friends that he “practically raped her” and they encourage her to lodge a complaint. Both students end up in front of a faculty board on sexual misconduct. Actually is mostly a set of intercut monologues in which each of the characters presents a self-portrait while narrating the story of their interaction; only in the opening minutes of the play and in the final scene do they talk to each other, aside from a heated moment in their relaying of the events of the night in question, when they quarrel over exactly what happened.

Contemporary plays on hot-button topics tend to be didactic, with an unwavering point of view, but Actually holds fast to its ambiguity, and it takes the stance – not very popular in these days of Title IX (which deals with charges of sexual misconduct on college campuses) -- that that sexual connections between young people are complex affairs that comprehend not just the circumstances of the encounter but the psychology of both partners. (Ziegler is both implicitly and explicitly critical of the reductive language and general approach of Title IX.) And even once we know everything there is to know about them, Ziegler argues, we still can’t say for sure what happened between them in bed – particularly, of course, if both were so wasted that they can’t even be certain what they remember. It’s an unusually sensitive and non-doctrinaire piece of work, emotionally detailed and seeded with humor, and she does a superlative job of finding distinctive voices for the two characters. Her approach is different with each. Amber is highly observant and startlingly articulate, and her thoughts come out fast, in a kind of jag; she might be exhausting to listen to if she weren’t so consistently insightful about what she’s feeling at every moment and what she picks up around her. And her behavior is a result of the combination of those two elements. Tom is more adept at hiding what he’s feeling, so we get the important information about his life in either outbursts or asides. It’s only with Ziegler’s sketching in the background of Tom’s side to the story that the narrative gears creak somewhat. We learn in the course of the play that his father walked out on the family, that his mother learned she had cancer just before Tom started classes at Princeton, and that his new best friend on campus has tried to push him into a sexual relationship that he doesn’t want (or thinks he doesn’t want – Ziegler is carefully ambiguous here, too). That’s too many factors for one character in one ninety-minute play; I would have cut the cancer revelation.

Director Lileana Blain-Cruz presents the play (a world premiere) simply and straightforwardly and focuses, as she should, on the two talented performers. Boone, who played the drug dealer in Where Storms Are Born earlier in the Williamstown season, contributes a fine portrayal of Tom in which his poised, confident self-presentation hovers over a minefield of doubts and contradictions. Socha is touching and has many wonderful moments but she tends to repeat her effects, and occasionally her more emotional revelations slip over the edge into sentimentality. I think it’s a very, very tough role, though, and I found most of what she does with it admirable. Both actors work hard without showing us the labor, and though they rarely have to play off one another, you can sense the connection between them even when their characters are only talking about each other. That’s an acting feat that’s easy to underrate.

Lora Lee Gayer and Jeff McCarthy in A Legendary Romance. (Photo: Daniel Rader)

It’s difficult to choose which is the more egregious element in the new musical A Legendary Romance (Williamstown mainstage), the awkward, forced songs by Geoff Morrow or the idiotic book by Timothy Prager, but I think I’d go with the book. See if you can make better sense out of the plot than I could. In 1994, a young Hollywood hotshot (Maurice Jones) shows a famous one-time producer named Joseph Lindy (Jeff McCarthy) the rough cut of a new movie about a young star, Billie Hathaway (Lora Lee Gayer), whom he discovered and fell in love with in the early fifties. In the flashback scenes that make up most of the musical, Lindy’s own career is disrupted when he’s called to testify in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities just as he’s planning to shoot Billie’s biggest movie and marry her. (Since no one ever mentions screenwriters, we’re left to assume that Lindy writes his own pictures.) His political troubles bring out Billie’s sheeplike conservatism. She’s evidently swallowed all the anti-Commie propaganda floating around in Hollywood, and it looks as if she’s more worried about her career than she’s hot on pursuing their romance. But she’s not so right-wing that she won’t go along with Lindy’s plan to find a young unknown and make him into a puppet producer on the project.

The guy they find, Seth (Roe Hartrampf), is an eager Hollywood-celebrity wanna-be that Billie comes across when he crashes her and Lindy’s engagement party. It’s not clear what he wants to be, exactly, and though he’s canny enough to get in the front door he doesn’t have any idea who Billie is, though she’s one of Hollywood’s major rising stars. (He admits that he’s never seen any of her pictures; I guess he hasn’t read the trades either, or looked at the billboards.) Yet Lindy and Billie somehow manage to pass Seth off as one Vincent Connor, and, though he doesn’t have a single credit to his name or anyone to vouch for him except the disgraced Lindy, within moments Jack Warner has invited him out to dinner. Moreover, as soon as he’s taken over the film project, he changes it to suit himself and sets out to convince Billie to leave Lindy, who, he argues, can only poison her future, and take up with him instead. But instead of falling for his line, she rediscovers her love for Lindy just as quickly as she abandoned it and reports Connor to the committee as a politically suspect character and he’s served with a subpoena. If he testifies under his assumed identity, he’ll perjure himself; if he refuses, he’ll be arrested. The only solution is for Lindy and Billie to stage his death. (Billie, so anxious about her career a couple of scenes ago, now declares that she cares about nothing except Lindy.) But when Lindy finds out that it was Billie who dropped a dime on Connor, does he applaud her ingenuity and recognize her scheme as an undermining of HUAC? Nope! In the most misbegotten song in the show, a screeching tirade, he accuses her of perpetuating the odious power of the people who have blacklisted so many of his friends.

Lonny Price’s production is terrible, but I felt sorry for him and for Gayer and Hartrampf; I couldn’t help imagining them poring over the script, trying to figure out how to make sense out of a story line that doesn’t make basic sense and contradicts itself every ten minutes. It’s less easy to feel sorry for Jeff McCarthy, who gives a bloated, mannered and endlessly repetitive performance as Lindy and, though he can carry a tune, his stentorian style feels utterly wrong for musical theatre. Price has done such a good job of directing concert versions of musicals for PBS that I wondered if he just threw his hands up during rehearsal; he doesn’t even give McCarthy a few moves to execute during his (many) songs, so that he doesn’t have to keep waving his arms around. (The program doesn’t blame Price, or anyone, for the hopelessly amateurish film clips.) A Legendary Romance is an unfortunate musical.

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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