Monday, May 27, 2024

Toni Stone, Mother Play, Uncle Vanya: Deserting the Audience

Stanley Andrew Jackson and Jennifer Mogbock in Toni Stone. (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The titular protagonist of Toni Stone, currently playing in the Huntington Theatre’s revered space in Boston’s Back Bay, is the first woman who played baseball regularly in a professional league. She played for three Negro leagues in the forties and fifties, culminating in a season with the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League, where she replaced Hank Aaron, who had been picked up by the Milkwaukee Braves. It’s an appealing story for the stage and especially for contemporary audiences. But the playwright, Lydia R. Diamond, hasn’t worked out how to dramatize it.

The Huntington has mounted three of Diamond’s previous plays, including Smart People, an audacious and immensely clever comedy of manners that focuses on the social awkwardness of highly educated thirty-somethings struggling to navigate the racially charged world of the twenty-first century. That play is a four-hander in which the friends and lovers thrown together in a variety of increasingly tricky interactions are a Black man, a Black woman, an Asian woman and a white guy who alternately defy and fall into the traps of racial stereotypes, even when their wit and elevated level of perception have trained them to approach those types at least ironically. Smart People is highly accomplished; Toni Stone is shapeless. It seems to have a lot on its mind – the brutal treatment of African American ball players at exhibition games, the element of minstrelsy in the Negro Leagues, the resentment of male players against a woman whose performance on the field sometimes shows them up, the courage it takes for a woman to challenge mid-century gender expectations. But its structure is haphazard and some of the play is indecipherable; the first act is so blurry that at intermission I still wasn’t sure how we were supposed to respond to it. The dawdling direction, by Diamond herself, certainly doesn’t help.

The only element of the play that remains clear throughout is its didactic tone. Act one ends with a monologue by Toni (Jennifer Mogbock) that has something to do with finding beauty and heart in playing ball despite the trivializing laughter of (presumably white) spectators. I think I’ve got that right; the writing of both this speech and Toni’s second big one, late in the second act, is pseudo-poetic and pretty awful. But though I had to guess at the meaning, I couldn’t possibly have missed the fact that we were being lectured at. After she’s done the play stops dead while one by one the male members of the ensemble march off the stage, eventually followed by Mogbock.

Mogbock’s acting exacerbates the problems in the writing. It’s flamboyant and physically repetitive but to employ acting-class terms, l couldn’t understand a single character objective. The male actors who surround her are very good. Mostly they play Toni’s teammates, though the standout performances are given by Stanley Andrew Jackson as her closest friend, Millie, a prostitute with whom she boards, and Jonathan Kitt as Alberga, who falls in love with Toni and eventually marries her. I have no idea why Millie is being played by a man; the brief appearance of one of the actors in drag as Toni’s mother appears to have some vague connection to minstrelsy but there’s no burlesque in Jackson’s portrayal of Millie, so if there was a thread here I lost it. If the writing and direction of a new play keep the audience guessing about the meaning of what’s up on the stage, what the hell is the point of the enterprise? (If you’re looking for a pleasurable movie about the era of Black baseball teams, you might check out the 1976 The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings, which is set in the late thirties and stars Richard Pryor, Billy Dee Williams and James Earl Jones.)

Jim Parsons, Jessica Lange and Celia Keenan-Bolger in Mother Play. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Halfway through Mother Play, the new Paula Vogel piece, I wondered if it would ever turn into an actual play rather than a series of wiseacre one-liners and kitschy embellishments (like projections of animated cockroaches). Be careful what you wish for. What Mother Play ends up being is target practice aimed at its central character, Phyllis (Jessica Lange), a drunk whose fury at the physically abusive husband who emptied their bank accounts before abandoning her to raise a high-schooler (Jim Parsons) and a middle-schooler (Celia Keenan-Bolger) by herself – a fury that hovers over the trashy environments they’re stuck inhabiting – is finally less reprehensible than her intolerance when first her son, Carl, and then her daughter, Martha, comes out. God, I hate plays and movies that are shaped by their hatred of the main character and culminate in scenes where their kids finally get a chance to tell these parental harridans what monsters they are. (Most egregious examples: Neil Simon’s play Lost in Yonkers and Scott Hicks’s film Shine.) Apparently Mother Play is semi-autobiographical, which partly explains why Phyllis is a hard-boiled version of American drama’s most famous mama, Amanda Wingfield, who was created out of Tennessee Williams’s anger at his own mother. (The wag with whom I saw Vogel’s play suggested calling my review “The Roach Menagerie.”)

Lange is a great actress, and the last time I saw her live, in a 2016 Broadway revival of Long Day’s Journey into Night, she gave what seemed to me to be the most extraordinary performance of an amazing career. But though her line readings are sometimes quite funny, there’s nothing for her to play here, and without any real emotional context except for Vogel’s dislike of her character, Lange’s big scenes are impossible to pull off. Yes, the playwright shows us Phyllis’s loneliness after she’s thrown both of her children out of her life (the play’s subtitle is A Play in Five Evictions), but we’ve already been carefully instructed to find her obnoxious at best, repugnant at worst, and it’s her own damn fault, so we can’t find much sympathy for her. Her character isn’t even consistent: when Carl is admitted into his high school’s honor society, she shows up wearing a jean jacket with a peace sign sewn on it, but a few scenes later she rants against “counterculture crap.” Parsons isn’t an actor at all, just a creator of bitchy routines that don’t vary from one performance to another; we’re supposed to think Phyllis is smart, so it’s impossible to believe she could be surprised when Carl reveals he’s gay. Keenan-Bolger is the only one of the three actors who is not only talented but also has the advantage of not having to fight against the script. She comes off best, but it’s not much of a competition.

The cast of Uncle Vanya at Lincoln Center. (Photo: Marc J. Franklin)

Perhaps the key to everything that’s wrong with Lila Neugebauer’s revival of Uncle Vanya, in a new version by Heidi Schreck (author of the deplorable What the Constitution Means to Me) at Lincoln Center, is Alison Pill’s appearance as Sonia in ugly short pants in the first act. It’s not merely jarring to see this modernist masterpiece wedged into a modern setting – as if you had to work at making Chekhov’s complex characters and relationships relevant to our time, especially in a play where one of the characters is a prescient environmentalist – as it is to hear his dialogue spotted with banal profanities. (It feels as if Schreck updated the setting to have an excuse to have the characters curse.) But this costume, designed by Kaye Voyce, has the effect of making Chekhov’s most heartbreaking character look stupid. Anyone who knows Uncle Vanya understands that Sonia’s great misfortune, in her own view, is her plainness; she pines for Astrov, the doctor, who respects her but barely notices her. We’re not meant to think that Sonia’s problem is that she has no taste.

The production is a case study in bad taste, beginning with Mimi Lien’s appalling set, a few sticks of furniture plopped down in front of a projection of trees. Neugebauer has set the first half outside, so the characters wander around in the second-act rainstorm, kicking at puddles as a way, I guess, of expressing their ennui (poor Sonia even lies down in one) while the audience tries to figure out why the upstage piano never gets wet. Are we supposed to think it’s on a porch? Why, exactly, is it our job to make sense of the set? After intermission the play moves inside, which helps somewhat until act four, where the trees are projected above the interior of the house and a hole has been carved into the wall. The first half has no rhythm whatsoever; it feels as if the actors are making it up as they go along. Just to be clear, that’s not the same thing as reimagining the rhythms to take advantage of the sensibilities of contemporary actors, as Andre Gregory famously did in his 1994 film Vanya on 42nd Street and Richard Nelson did in his 2018 Uncle Vanya and Ian Rickson in his 2021 stage-to-screen version. (The first two of these made compromises with the setting without trying to convince us that Chekhov’s characters were literally our contemporaries.) All three of those Vanyas were revelations. Neugebauer’s is merely befuddling.

To be fair, this production does improve somewhat after intermission, and Steve Carell, as Vanya, has some fine moments, especially in the fourth act. But he’s such a wonderful actor and so perfectly cast that you keep imagining how fabulous he would have been in a decent version. (He needs to make more interesting physical choices, and a lot more of them.) On the other hand, though it’s easy to feel terrible for Alison Pill because of the shameful way the production uses her, you can’t picture an Uncle Vanya in which she might have made an affecting Sonia and not a shrill, amateurish one. As the professor the superb Alfred Molina manages to transcend the infelicities of the show, and Jonathan Hadary, as Waffles, finds fresh humor in his lines. As Elena, Anika Noni Rose has one lovely moment, when she muses, “It’s already September. How are we going to make it through the summer?” But I didn’t believe a single detail of William Jackson Harper’s Astrov – I didn’t even buy that he was a doctor. Elena complains to Vanya that both of them are boring, tedious people. This Vanya seems to set out to prove she’s right and extend the criticism to almost everyone else on the stage. That’s quite an achievement.

– 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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