Monday, July 2, 2018

Three New Works: The Sound Inside, The Closet, and Born for This

Will Hochman and Mary Louise Parker in Adam Rapp's The Sound Inside. (Photo: Carolyn Brown)

The Sound Inside, on the Nikos Stage at Williamstown Theatre Festival, is a two-hander by Adam Rapp about the unexpected friendship between a middle-aged Yale creative writing professor and her most intriguing and perplexing student, a freshman who shows up at her office without an appointment and overcomes her irritation with his refusal to play by the rules by hooking her on an idea for a novel he’s writing. My response to the play while it was going on in a sense emulated the professor Bella Baird’s reaction to the student, Christopher Dunn: I was both fascinated and exasperated. Rapp has structured the piece as a narrative that Bella is relating to us; Rapp – or perhaps the director, David Cromer – underscores this idea, unnecessarily, by showing her putting sentences down in a notebook (at least, some of the time) after she speaks them, and the frame of the play, in which she describes herself in the third person as a woman facing an audience in an auditorium, suggests that her story about Christopher has been published and she’s reading it publicly. But in the opening scene especially, the storytelling keeps interrupting the drama, and the exchange between Bella and Christopher is more interesting than her report of it. I understand that the play is about writing: about the art of fiction that, when it’s really cooking, writes itself, transforming private emotion into prose, and about how personal experience gets converted into narrative. (Presumably the title alludes to both these ideas.) But what’s compelling on the stage is the conversion of narrative into drama. In The Sound Inside Rapp, searching for a way to show us how writing works – a noble mission, and God knows a difficult one – repeatedly forestalls the drama, though the play contains patches of beautiful writing.

Bella is a lonely woman who published a novel nearly twenty years ago, then two collections of short stories, but hasn’t written anything in a long time. She’s recently learned that she has malignant tumors in her stomach that, though they have caused her no pain so far, will almost certainly kill her. (The way in which Rapp links this set of circumstances with the story of her relationship with Christopher isn’t obvious until late in the play, and then it’s surprising.) Christopher is lonely, too, an outsider in the Yale freshman community who wants to reach out to young women but is uncomfortable with sex and who is a tangle of disparate impulses. As Will Hochman plays him (it’s a lovely performance), he’s arrogant and vulnerable, intellectually ostentatious and insecure, challenging and receptive, sometimes two or three of these things at the same time. Rapp has been careful not to portray him as recognizably on the spectrum; clearly he wants to preserve the character’s mystery and sees how easy it is for us to relegate a character to a set of psychological signposts that tell us how to read him. I respect that decision, and moreover I understand that it’s precisely because Christopher admires Bella so much and wants to impress her that his efforts sometimes come out all wrong; what eighteen-year-old hasn’t had that experience? But at the same time I found Christopher’s more aggressive behavior puzzling, like his explosions of disdain against the educational system and his spitting on her floor because he thinks that’s how Dostoevski, one of his heroes, would demonstrate his displeasure; they don’t fit plausibly with the other parts of his personality.

The other problem with The Sound Inside is Mary Louise Parker’s performance as Bella. Parker can be imaginative and funny in unpredictable ways, as she was on the first season of Weeds and in Simon Stephens’s play Heisenberg, which she performed two seasons ago in New York. She can also get stuck in her old mannerism of staying emotionally detached and relying on a trick of hip irony – and that’s what she does here. She doesn’t play a discernible character, and she gives us so little indication of how she’s reacting to Christopher that we don’t understand why she suddenly invites him back to her apartment for coffee and puts him up for the night. It’s more than her interest in the novel he’s writing; what she offers him is friendship as well as mentorship. (She’s already in the professional role of his mentor anyway, since he’s a student in her class and she seems to be an excellent teacher.) Parker seems to be under the impression that if she gave Bella any warmth, she would be sentimentalizing her or betraying her mystery, but you just end up thinking she’s miscast. You need someone who can convey intellectual depth without closing off her feelings; a former student of mine, who came with me to the show, astutely suggested Rachel Weisz. Parker makes it tougher to get at what Rapp is struggling to accomplish in this interesting play.

Brooks Ashmanskas and Matthew Broderick in The Closet. (Photo: Carolyn Brown

Douglas Carter Beane’s latest comedy, The Closet, which is playing next door to The Sound Inside on Williamstown’s mainstage, is adapted from a play by the French writer-director Francis Veber that he filmed in 2001. Veber has a knack for the kind of small-scale, ingenious farces that Hollywood is much too nervous and encumbered to make these days, and I quite enjoy them. In The Closet, Daniel Auteuil plays a nebbishy accountant who, with the help of his neighbor, pretends to be gay in order to keep his boss (GĂ©rard Depardieu) from firing him, sure that the man won’t want to come across as homophobic. In Beane’s version, the protagonist, Martin (played by the king of nebbishes, Matthew Broderick), whose marriage has broken up, rents half his house to Ronnie (Brooks Ashmaskas), a gay man. When Ronnie finds out that Martin is in danger of being fired for making a stupid error at work – he’s employed at a supply house for Christian items – it’s his idea to make Martin’s co-workers believe that they’re lovers. And it works: Roland (Will Cobbs), the boss’s son, who’s supposed to take Martin out for a cheap lunch and give him the ax, instead stuffs him with a meal at The Cheesecake Factory, praises his work and even treats him to a new sweater. The office manager, Brenda (Ann Harada), a straight woman who considers herself hip to the gay scene, starts to pay him some attention, and when Ronnie leaks photos of the made-up gay couple online, Martin’s teenage son Jack (Ben Ahlers), who has never had much use for his dad, suddenly sees him as a hero. Beane lays the groundwork for this version of the material by satirizing contemporary modes of political correctness: the employees at this company have been asked to attend sensitivity seminars, and one of Martin’s co-workers, Pat (Jessica Hecht), is hyperconscious of employing language that won’t offend anyone. To increase the potential for tripping over cultural landmines, Roland is African American and Brenda is Asian.

I’m not a fan of Beane’s other plays, but here, adapting another man’s work but reconstituting it to fit the current cultural moment, he does everything right. The Closet is deliciously silly and hilarious and all the gags work. The script is studded with one-liners that pop like firecrackers. Beane even gets away with Martin’s long, sentimental speech at the end because he places it in a sufficiently ridiculous context – and, in Mark Brokaw’s smart production, because the trademark oddness of Broderick’s reading lends it a gently ironic edge. Brokaw has staged it effectively on Allen Moyer’s set, which lightly stylizes the factory, with its shelves and shelves of icons.

Williamstown has gathered an ideal cast. Broderick has given this performance before, but he developed it long ago into a style as distinctive and inimitable as the shtick of a seasoned comedian; to complain that he’s repeating himself makes as much sense as putting down Bob Hope or Jerry Lewis. I always love to watch Jessica Hecht but this is the first time I’ve seen her play farce, and it turns out she’s expert at it; I was in her corner from the moment she walked onstage at the top of act one and flashed Broderick’s Martin, whom she has a crush on, an extra-big smile to try to get his (wayward) attention, the strain showing in every muscle. Ahlers has a one-note part – Jack is all boyish earnestness – but he makes the note ring, while Cobbs turns Roland’s macho awkwardness into a fine running gag (with a good punch line). Raymond Bokhour shows up at the end of the first act as an Italian bishop and steals much of the second act. He and Ashamaskas are essentially playing caricatures; it’s part of Beane’s scheme in this burlesque of political correctness to remind us that exaggeration is at the heart of farce and that the more outrageous it is, the more we enjoy it. You’d have to be a curmudgeon not to laugh at Ashmaskas’s performance – not only at his line readings but also at his inventive physicality. Harada is equally nutty as Brenda, the office manager, who is delighted to discover that she has a gay co-worker because she’s a show-music freak who can locate a song cue in the midst of any conversation, and who has the entire Sondheim canon at the tip of her brain. It’s pretty funny when she bursts out with “M-m-m-mama, m-m-m-mama” from “Rose’s Turn,” the eleven-o’clock number from Gypsy, and the more obscure her choices, like “Four Black Dragons” from Pacific Overtures (which provokes Roland, who thinks it’s a racist insult), the more changes Beane the actress and the playwright ring on this particular joke. You can pick out the Sondheim diehards in the audience by who laughs loudest when Martin asks Roland if it’s OK for him to remove his new sweater because it’s hot in the factory and Brenda, without missing a beat, sings, “It’s hot and it’s monotonous.” (For non-diehards, the reference is to “It’s Hot in Here” from Sunday in the Park with George.) The Closet is the perfect entertainment for a summer evening.

Juan Winans as BeBe Winans, Kiandra Richardson as Whitney Houston, and Deborah Joy Winans as CeCe Winans in Born for This. (Photo: Ben Gibbs)

Musical bios of pop musicians are proliferating like bunnies these days; they’ve taken over the musical-theatre landscape. Just when Jersey Boys and Beautiful seem to have finally stopped touring, there are new ones about Donna Summer, Cher, Tina Turner and The Go-Gos. Born for This is about the gospel singer BeBe Winans, whose career blossomed when Jim and Tammy Bakker hired him to perform on the PTL channel, and it’s a particularly egregious entry in the genre. Some of Winans’s music is rousing and melodic, and certainly the cast can sing. But the fact that three people are credited with the book – Winans, Lisa D’Amour and the director, Charles Randolph-Wright (whose last show was Motown) – is something of a joke, considering that there’s hardly any dialogue and what little there is consists entirely of uplifting platitudes. I got a little lightheaded from all the pumped-up virtuousness. Wright’s staging is amateurishly monotonous: every scene that isn’t set in the TV studio or on a stage includes a couch downstage center, and no matter where the actors start they always seem to end up in a straight line. Aside from its massive size, Neil Patel’s set looks like it was built for a community theatre. The ensemble divides roughly into singers with huge voices and personalities to match and singers with nothing but huge voices. Unfortunately, Donald Webber Jr., who plays BeBe, is in the latter category, but then neither he nor Loren Lott, as his sister and performing partner CeCe, gets any help from the script or even much help from the choreographer, Warren Adams. Brad Raymond, as Ronald, one of their four brothers (who sing together), makes an impression; so do Milton Craig Nealy and Nita Whitaker as their parents, each of whom gets a good, barnstorming number. (Whitaker’s is hands down the highlight of the evening.) Liisi LaFontaine works hard as Whitney Houston but she’s stuck with the worst song in the show. The most bizarre element of Born for This is the depiction of the Bakkers: they’re parodied, SNL style, but there’s no bite to the parody, and when Jim winds up in prison for fraud and BeBe goes to see him, suddenly we’re meant to see him as a poor sinner struggling to make amends for wandering off the moral path. This is a fruitcake of a musical, but that doesn’t mean it’s much fun.

– 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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