Monday, November 18, 2019

New Works for the Theatre: The Michaels, The Height of the Storm and Admissions

Brenda Wehle and Charlotte Bydwell in The Michaels: Conversations During Difficult Times. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

The Michaels: Conversations During Difficult Times is Richard Nelson’s first play since he directed his own translation, with the wizardly translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, of Uncle Ványa in the Hunter Theatre Project a year ago. Now he’s back at the Public, where he presented (also as both playwright and director) his tetralogy The Apple Family Plays and his trilogy The Gabriels, and like those plays – and like Uncle Ványa – the style is what you might call conversational realism. The venue is LuEsther Hall, the smallest space at the Public, and those of us who didn’t obtain a listening device in the lobby leaned in to listen as soon as the actors had created the set out of piled-up tables, chairs and benches, rolled-up rugs and props laid out in trays. Then the lights come up and Jay O. Sanders, as David Michael, a producer and arts manager, tells the assembled kitchen in his ex-wife Rose’s Rhinebeck house about having to appear in place of an ailing actor in his latest show. He describes what it was like to experience the sacred performance space actors and dancers claim that isn’t normally open to mere producers. (Rhinebeck, in upstate New York, is also the setting of The Apple Family Plays and The Gabriels.)

It’s an ingenious opening for this beautiful work about the spaces, onstage and offstage, that people who have chosen the lives of dancers occupy. Rose (Brenda Wehle) ran a dance company for years; the woman she left David for, Alice, died of cancer a few years ago and Rose still grieves her, though she has been seeing Kate (Maryann Plunkett), a retired history teacher who once taught her daughter, for a couple of months. Rose is now dying of cancer, too (ovarian), and much of the time Kate takes care of her, though Kate’s own romantic past, we learn late in the play, poses its own challenges to their relationship. Except for David, Kate is the only character in the play, and the only woman, who isn’t a dancer. David’s second wife, Sally (Rita Wolf), was a founding member of the company. Visiting Rose is another former dancer with the company, Irenie Walker (Haviland Morris). David and Rose’s daughter Lucy (Charlotte Bydwell) and May (Matilda Sakamoto), the daughter of Rose’s sister, both dance, and they have been learning three of Rose’s old pieces in order to reconstruct them for a retrospective of her work, while Lucy is attempting to put together journals based on her mother’s recollections and ideas about her choreography. It’s not easy, because Rose refuses to be put her memories on tape and because – partly due to her waning strength and partly due to a characteristic impatience – she cuts herself off abruptly, often in the middle of a story.

If you follow Nelson’s work – and I do, as much as I can (his output is overwhelming) – then you’ll recognize several of the actors: Sanders from The Gabriels (which I didn’t catch) and The Apple Family Plays, who also gave a brilliant reading of the title character in Ványa, Plunkett from The Gabriels and The Apple Family Plays, Morris from Rodney’s Wife and Nikolai and the Others. I’d seen Wehle as the venomous gossip columnist in a Broadway revival of The Big Knife in 2013 but she didn’t make much of an impression. I didn’t know Wolf or the two young women, who are also dancers. All seven members of the ensemble are remarkable – especially Wehle as a tough, charismatic, beloved figure whose anger at her disease is as much a sign of her fiery spirit as it is of her unstinting love for the people who have gathered around her. When the play was over I couldn’t get Rose’s image – slender, statuesque, her short blonde hair like a nimbus – out of my head, nor did I want to. The dialogue is exquisitely crafted but the actors read it as if it were improvised, and if there was a single false moment in the orchestration of the exchanges I didn’t hear it.

The high point of the show is the performance of the three dances, which Lucy and May hoped to show Rose in the studio the next day but which she insists on seeing right away, in the kitchen, where they have to negotiate the tables and chairs and the others have to try to stay out of the way. Rose hates “dancy” dances; she subscribes to the post-modern esthetic of Yvonne Rainer, Merce Cunningham and Trisha Brown (all of whom are referenced in the dialogue), which privileges recognizable physical action above balletic form and – as we see in the pieces (which Dan Wagoner choreographed) – can be exuberant, witty, extremely dramatic, and full of surprises. The dances are enthralling, but we watch them with a split focus because we are as interested in Rose’s reaction to seeing them again as in Lucy and May’s performances. To complicate matters further, the pieces are autobiographical (which is a revelation to the young performers); the first, set to Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer Rag,” Rose titled “My Brokenhearted Rag,” and it’s about how she felt when Alice left her for a few months. Irenie was the original dancer, so as Rose watches it she’s seeing her daughter through the lens of both Alice and Irenie – double pentimento.

Much as I love Nelson plays like Rodney’s Wife and Goodnight Children Everywhere and his musical adaptation James Joyce’s The Dead, something magical often happens when he turns to the subject of the performing arts, as he did in Nikolai and the Others (which is about Balanchine and Stravinsky and other Russians residing in New York in the 1940s) and Illyria (where Joe Papp, who founded the Public, is the main character). The Michaels, like those plays, gets at the intersection of life and performance in a way that makes you think inevitably of Chekhov and The Seagull – and perhaps nothing else. I think he’s the best American playwright working now, though so far his work is barely known outside the off-Broadway stages. He should be celebrated.

 Eileen Atkins and Jonathan Pryce in The Height of the Storm. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

I saw The Father by the French playwright Florian Zeller in its West End run in 2015. A chronicle of the descent of an aging man into dementia with a stunning performance by Kenneth Cranham, it was startling and memorable, but I didn’t get a chance to write about it and the night I was supposed to see Frank Langella in the Broadway transfer, he was sick so I turned in my ticket. The Height of the Storm, coming to the end of its limited run for the Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, is Zeller’s latest play, and like The Father it has been translated by Christopher Hampton. (What choice could be better?) Both the play and the production, which originated in London and was staged by Jonathan Kent, are first-rate. Both dramas play with point of view; in The Height of the Storm Zeller retains the ambiguity of whose perspective is directing the narrative almost until the end, and even then you can’t be absolutely certain. Jonathan Pryce and Eileen Atkins are André and Madeleine, a famous writer and his wife, who live in a gracious house in the countryside outside London and have been together for many years. But one of them has just died and both their grown daughters, Anne (Amanda Drew) and Élise (Lisa O’Hare), are lingering about the household, along with (briefly) Élise’s latest lover (James Hillier) and a mysterious woman (Lucy Cohu) who may or may not once have been involved with André or perhaps his one-time best friend (whom he doesn’t seem to remember).

You can see the influence of Harold Pinter and particularly of Old Times on Zeller, but I think this is a better play. (But then I’m not a Pinter guy.) It’s affecting and full of unsettling tonal shifts and sometimes it has a wounding humor. God knows you could hardly find two leading actors more adept at handling all of these challenges than Pryce and Atkins, though I think the other three women in the cast are all excellent, especially Cohu. Pryce’s performance as a man who seems to be on the verge of tumbling into an abyss (much like Cranham’s character in The Father) is a tour de force. This is a most auspicious season opener for the MTC.

Cheryl McMahon and Maureen Keiller in Admissions. (Photo: Maggie Hall)

Since I didn’t get to Admissions, Joshua Harmon’s play, at Lincoln Center a couple of seasons ago I checked out the production at SpeakEasy in Boston, directed by Paul Daigneault. It’s a strong one, with five very skillful actors, and the play, a satire, is very funny. The premise is irresistible. Sherri Rosen-Mason (Maureen Keiller) is the admissions officer at a coveted Maine prep school where her husband Bill (Michael Kaye) is headmaster and her son Charlie (Nathan Malin) is one of the most gifted students in the senior class. Sherri prides herself on having diversified the student body – she’s driven the percentage of students of color up from five per cent to nineteen. Sherri’s best friend, Ginnie Peters (Marianna Bassham), is married to a member of the faculty; their son and Charlie have been inseparable since they were little kids, and the boys have been dreaming of attending Yale together. When Ginnie’s son Perry, who is biracial, gets in and Charlie doesn’t, the news sets off a series of explosions that play cleverly against the opening scene, where Sherri is at great pains to communicate to her assistant, Roberta (Cheryl McMahon), the importance of showcasing their students of color in the school brochure.

This play about the limitations of white progressive thinking is very clever in a number of ways, one of which is that the two non-white characters who figure in the narrative, Ginnie’s husband and son, remain offstage presences. But it has what I think of as the Theresa Rebeck problem: though it’s an entertainment without any real depth – not necessarily a drawback – you suddenly realize, toward the end, that the playwright thinks he’s written a serious and important dramatic exploration of the subject. And unlike Rebeck’s Seminar, for instance, it doesn’t work all the way through even on the level of entertainment. About twenty minutes before the end Charlie undergoes a reversal which is necessary for the machinations of the plot but which you don’t buy for a minute. Malin, by the way, who is a BFA student at Boston University, is my favorite among the talented cast. When Charlie comes home after learning that Yale wait-listed him – and after, he admits, screaming in the woods for four hours – he delivers a hilarious screed against affirmative action that must run to several pages in the script and which the actor sustains laudably. He’s a find.

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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