Monday, June 5, 2023

Water in the Desert: Summer, 1976 and Good Night, Oscar

Laura Linney and Jessica Hecht in Summer, 1976. (Photo: Jeremy Daniel)

Almost every straight play I’ve seen in the last two years has either infuriated me or made me feel desperate about the state of the American theatre. It’s partly the result of the Covid shutdown, partly the elevation of identity politics as subject matter, partly the pushback against the old priorities, like structure and narrative logic and character development – which is, of course, a form of the rejection of professional expertise, now considered a cover for racism or sexism or homophobia. But after you’ve sat through Fairview, POTUS, The Minutes, Straight Line Crazy and A Prayer for the French Republic (some of which were written by playwrights with some talent), you might long for a display of skill the way a stranded traveler in the Gobi Desert longs for water.

David Auburn’s Summer, 1976 (produced by the Manhattan Theatre Club) isn’t a masterpiece, but I got to the end of it without wanting to give up going to plays altogether, which these days is something of an achievement. Actually the play is considerably better than that:  it’s a very pleasant two-hander about the unlikely friendship of two women in Columbus, Ohio who meet through their young daughters. The women, who also tell the story, are Diana (Laura Linney), an artist and art instructor whose child is the result of a grad-school love affair she saw no reason to continue, and Alice (Jessica Hecht), a housewife whose husband is an economist struggling to make tenure. Alice and Diana don’t like each other at first; at first glimpse, they don’t even care for each other’s kids. Diana thinks Alice is banal and conventional, the kind of middle-class woman who doesn’t work but considers herself a free spirit because she smokes pot and keeps her house messy. Alice finds Diana uptight and snobby. But when they share one of Alice’s joints and wind up spending an afternoon together, they discover that they connect in unsuspected ways. And for a too-brief period of time, they play important roles in each other’s lives.

I often respond to Auburn’s plays, like Proof (though it falls apart in the middle) and Lost Lake. He creates characters you haven’t encountered before, he understands how to write for actors, and there are pockets of quite fine writing in all of them – including The Columnist, though it’s the one that didn’t work for me. It’s also the one that dramatizes a true story, which may have given him trouble. (I haven’t seen or read his adaptation of Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March.) There’s a speech in Summer, 1976 where Diana takes us through describes a migraine that reminded me of a remarkably evocative episode in an Anita Brookner novel – was it Brief Lives? – I read years ago.  Both characters are sharp-witted, audacious and funny, but in different ways; their sensitivities are different too, and they learn by degrees, and never entirely, how to avoid stepping on each other’s. These qualities are engaging, even though the play seems at first to be building on a hopeful premise – the variance within people – that it ends up abandoning for something more familiar: the way life’s tangles carry us away from each other.

The two actresses, acting on a beautiful John Lee Beatty set under the direction of Auburn’s favorite director, Daniel Sullivan, give such marvelous performances that the play’s shortcomings never get in the way of our enjoyment. Hecht is a traditional Method performer and Linney is more of a technician, and the tension between their disparate styles is part of what makes them so much fun to watch. You can see, moreover, what a great time they’re having. Their interaction on stage is a kind of dance that they engage in as much for each other as for themselves. Even their curtain call is playful.

Ben Rappaport and Sean Hayes in Good Night, Oscar. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

In Good Night, Oscar Sean Hayes plays the famous pianist, memoirist, neurotic and Gershwin buddy Oscar Levant, a one-of-a-kind mid-twentieth-century personality who has been largely forgotten. The play is set in 1958, around one of Levant’s appearances on The Jack Paar Show. Paar (Ben Rappaport), the first late-night talk-show host, loves interviewing Levant, who can be outrageous – dangerously so, in the view of Paar’s boss, NBC’s president Robert Sarnoff (Peter Grosz), and especially when he’s managed to duck the watchful eye of his nurse, Alvin Finnery (Marchánt Davis) and get into Finnery’s Demerol stash, as he does on this occasion. The play, written by Doug Wright and directed by Lisa Peterson, is stock, and except for Rappaport the entire supporting cast, including an unfortunately costumed and coiffed Emily Bergl as Levant’s wife June, is dull. But Hayes’s performance, which feels at first like an impersonation, brings it to life. And it has a stunning climax. Though Levant is haunted by his friendship with Gershwin (who appears in his fantasies, played by a baffling uncharismatic young actor named John Zdrojeski) and feels that he has lived the last two decades since the composer’s death in his shadow, Paar convinces him to sit down at the piano and render "Rhapsody in Blue," and Hayes, who studied to be a classical pianist, plays the hell out of it. Hayes’s acting and these fifteen spectacular minutes provide a raison d’être for the whole project.

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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