Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Coming Around Again

David Adkins, Corinna May, Tim Jones and Kate Goble in Seascape.

This article includes reviews of Seascape, Persuasion, Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris and Sing Street.

Edward Albee’s Seascape first appeared on Broadway in 1975, in a production he directed that featured Barry Nelson, Deborah Kerr, Frank Langella and Maureen Anderman. Its run was short – a couple of months – but it won Albee the second of his three Pulitzer Prizes. (The others were for A Delicate Balance and Three Tall Women.) Though it’s a marvelous work, but it seldom comes up for revival, presumably because it’s such an oddity. It’s about a meeting between a middle-aged couple, marking retirement with a beachside vacation, and a pair of lizards, also a couple, who have come up from the sea; Albee, taking the special poetic license reserved for absurdists, has conveniently allowed the lizards to converse in English. With its taste for revisiting plays, mostly American, that have fallen into obscurity, Berkshire Theatre Group has just opened Seascape at its Unicorn Theatre in Stockbridge. This is only the second time I’ve seen it performed. Mark Lamos staged a dazzling production in 2002 with a flawless cast – George Grizzard, Pamela Payton-Wright, David Patrick Kelly and Annalee Jeffries; I can still remember the costumes Constance Hoffman designed for the lizards. Lamos remounted it at Lincoln Center in 2005 with Grizzard, Frances Sternhagen, Frederick Weller and Elizabeth Marvel.

The first act of the play establishes a tension between the long-married couple, Charlie (played at BTG by David Adkins) and Sarah (Kate Goble). Children grown, career completed, Charlie is content to reward himself by drifting into a life that Sarah sees as static and lacking in adventure, while she’s seeking a new phase of their existence – and their marriage – that will, perhaps, see them as nomads, exploring the world as they haven’t before. The lizards, Leslie (Tim Jones) and Nancy (Corinna May), show up shortly before intermission. After some initial anxiety on both sides while each couple views the other as possibly hostile, Sarah and Nancy override the belligerence of their partners – Albee has fun sending up gender roles here – and encourage them to make friendly overtures. Eventually the humans try to introduce the lizards to the new world into which they have ventured, discovering the ways in which their species overlap as well as the ways in which they differ and attempting, with expected awkwardness and difficulty, to explain how human beings experience emotion. The play is partly about evolution, which is also one of the themes of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth (which BTG had some success with a few years ago), but, like Wilder’s, it’s mostly about what makes us human. And I think Albee’s is better.

I was pleased to have another chance to see Seascape, but Eric Hill’s production for BTG is rather superficial. Once the lizards make their entrance, he and his actors play it in broad comic style, and though the writing is often very funny, here the humor is so obvious that when the text turns serious in the second half of act two the tonal shift is too abrupt and we don’t know how we’re supposed to respond to it. At that point the show simply flattens out. And though Albee’s language is stylized, though more subtly than in most of his other work, the cast approaches it at first as if it were American realism and then as if they were in a TV sitcom, so its unusual beauty gets buried in familiar tropes.

Adkins seems lost in the material. He’s not very good at this sort of comedy, so he comes across as artificial. Goble is better: she gets stuck in a pedantic mode in the first act, when Sarah is struggling to rev up her indifferent husband, but the appearance of Nancy and Leslie teases out softer tones. May and Jones have the disarming roles and they’re more interesting to watch (partly, no doubt, because they get to wear striking lizard outfits; Elivia Bovenzi Blitz designed the costumes). I enjoyed watching Jones the most, but Hill’s direction restricts the range of his performance. TV-style situation comedy mostly relies on types and routines, so even though his jokes always land, Jones has to keep repeating himself and we never get to whatever depths are hidden underneath Leslie’s macho posturing and defensiveness. The strange, poetic quality of Albee’s play comes through only in dribs and drabs.

Dakota Johnson in Persuasion.

I don’t think Jane Austen’s Persuasion is a very good novel, but in the last fifty years scholars have, bafflingly, embraced it as her most modern work. This despite the fact that her heroine, Anne Elliot, is a punching bag – kind, generous, efficient at everything yet undervalued by her entire family, a hidden jewel who languishes for the love of Frederick Wentworth, whose suit she once turned down because he was a penniless sailor and her late mother’s friend Lady Russell persuaded her he was a bad bargain. Nothing about the book feels especially modern to me, but in the latest film adaptation – there was a thin-blooded, rather unpleasant one in 2007 with Sally Hawkins and Rupert Penry-Jones – the director Carrie Cracknell and the screenwriters Ron Bass and Alice Victoria Winslow have tried to rig the case by having her and the other characters reveal themselves with a frankness that would have been unheard-of in Austen’s England. (Their dialogue is also sprinkled with anachronisms.) They’ve also given her a drinking habit that no one seems to notice except us. Cracknell is a first-rate stage director – she helmed fine productions of Medea and The Deep Blue Sea at the National Theatre, starring the late Helen McCrory – who has transferred her sense of style and her staging skills to the screen, and the landscapes, lit by Joe Anderson, and Marianne Agertoft’s costumes are graceful. But Persuasion is a silly movie that keeps announcing how clever it thinks it is. Anne, played by the talented Dakota Johnson, talks to the camera; in the final shot, she even (literally) winks at it. In her tête-à-têtes with Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis, who looks like a woebegone marionette) and Mr. Elliot (Henry Golding), the dashing cousin and heir to her father’s estate who courts her, they lay out their thoughts and psychological motivations so precisely that the Austen’s comic premise in all her books, that the characters keep getting each other completely wrong, ceases to function. In the novel Mr. Elliot is revealed as a scoundrel toward the end; here he practically announces it. (As a result, his turnabout at the end makes no sense.) Nikki Amuka-Bird warms up the part of Lady Russell; she’s more likable in the movie than she is on the page, though Austen does give her the advantage of being a tireless promoter of her underappreciated friend. Since Johnson, who is the best thing in the picture, also brings some warmth to the picture, their scenes together are cheering. Richard E. Grant appears to be amusing himself as Anne’s narcissistic father.

Lesley Manville in Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris.

In the 1958 novel Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris by the startlingly prolific American writer Paul Gallico, the title character is a London domestic who, buoyed by winning some money in the pools, scrimps until she can add enough to it to take herself to Paris and buy a Dior dress. The heroine has so much heart and spirit that she wins devoted friends (and unravels their difficulties) in the short time she’s away from home. The reader loves her too, and the book, which Gallico followed up with three sequels, has considerable charm. There have been two television adaptations, one for Studio One in 1958 with Gracie Fields and a TV movie in 1992 starring Angela Lansbury.  The first theatrical film version, directed by Anthony Fabian from an adaptation by Fabian and Carroll Cartwright, corrects the Cockney “’Arris” to “Harris,” which is possibly the most fatuous effort yet to avoid ruffling some viewers’ sensitivities. Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris is pretty and pleasant enough, but it sentimentalizes the material, and the new plot details aren’t improvements on the original. In the title role, Lesley Manville tries hard but can’t overcome the fact that she’s miscast. Jason Isaacs (as an affable bookie), Isabelle Huppert (as the elitist director of the House of Dior) and Lambert Wilson (looking elegant as a marquis who finds Mrs. Harris enchanting) all register on the plus side. The Dior creations were designed by Jenny Beavan.

  The band in Sing Street. (Photo: Evan Zimmerman/MurphyMade)

At the end of Sing Street’s joyous run at New Year Theatre Workshop in February 2020, I reviewed it enthusiastically, sure that it would be a hit when it transferred to Broadway in the spring. But of course it couldn’t open. Now Sing Street, adapted by Enda Walsh from the 2016 John Carney movie musical about teenage boys struggling in a miserable free state school in the depressed Dublin of 1982 who break through by starting a band, has been gathered up again by its director, Rebecca Taichman, and its choreographer, Sonya Tayeh, and is touring before reopening in New York. I caught it at Boston’s Calderwood Pavilion, where it’s performing under the auspices of the Huntington Theatre Company, and loved it all over again: its defiant, anarchic spirit, the imaginative staging, the wonderful songs by Carney and Gary Clark. (“Up,” “Drive It Like You Stole It” and “Go Now” have been playing non-stop in my head for days). The cast is almost completely different from the one I saw in New York two and a half years ago, and I liked everyone in it. Adam Bregman is now playing Conor Lawlor, the protagonist, who winds up in a free school because his father is unemployed but whose middle-class upbringing marks him as posh in the eyes of his classmates. Courtnee Carter is Raphina, whose beauty and mystique so mesmerize Conor that he tells her he’s lead singer in a band and persuades her to appear in their video – and then he has to make good on his lie by actually starting one. (It’s a winning premise for both romantic comedy and coming-of-age drama, and Sing Street musicalizes both.) Bregman and Carter are gifted at suggesting lives on the adolescent cusp of many feelings: confusion, restlessness, exasperation, melancholy (Carter is particularly evocative here) and, at the other end of the spectrum, unreasonable hope and a desperation for adventure. The other standouts in the cast are Dónal Finn as Conor’s stoner older brother, whose sense of himself as a failure has paralyzed him and Alexa Xioufarido Moster as their sister Anne. The other fledgling musicians are played by Anthony Genovesi, Michael Lepore, Diego Lucano, Elijah Lyons, Gian Perez and Ben Wang. (Perez is the sole holdover from the New York cast.) I won’t repeat my praise for the musical, which I reviewed here in 2020, or my reservations about Walsh’s book; I’m just happy to be able to recommend the show once more.

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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