Monday, June 17, 2024

Authenticity: Mary Jane and Strategic Love Play

Rachel McAdams and Susan Pourfar in Mary Jane.

The title character in Amy Herzog’s Mary Jane, currently on Broadway, is the single mother of a two-and-a-half-year-old boy named Alex who was born with cerebral palsy, lung disease and a number of attendant maladies including a paralyzed vocal cord. Mary Jane (a luminous performance by Rachel McAdams) balances a job as a real estate assistant with caring for Alex in a one-bedroom Manhattan apartment – she sleeps on a pull-out couch in what looks to be the only other room – with the help of a series of nurses. Some fall asleep on their shift or complain that she doesn’t provide enough perks, but the one we meet, Sherry (April Mathis), is dedicated and has become a friend. Mary Jane, an outgoing, positive woman, has also made friends with the superintendent, Ruthie (Brenda Wehle), who is fixing the drain in the kitchen sink when the play opens; she likes the people whom she calls on for assistance to know how much she appreciates them. Mary Jane is also generous enough to advise and buck up new mothers who have found themselves on the same strange, terrifying road; we meet one, Brianne (Susan Pourfar), who is making a list under her guidance of the information she needs that the doctors may have neglected to supply, so that she doesn’t have to ferret it out for herself. About halfway through the play, which is performed without an intermission, Alex stops breathing and Mary Jane, Sherry and her college-age niece Amelia (Lily Santiago), a serious, straightforward young woman who turns out to be excellent in a crisis, have to tend to him while waiting for the paramedics to take him to the hospital. In the second half, the action shifts to that location, where everyone calls Mary Jane “Mom” and where Alex has been in residence for nearly two months. Here we meet four other women: Dr. Toros (Matthis), Kat (Santiago), who runs the hospital’s music therapy program; Tenkei (Wehle), a Buddhist chaplain; and Chaya (Pourfar), another mother with a desperately sick child at home.

Mary Jane avoids every trap that a play with this kind of narrative could fall into.  It contains no melodrama or sentimentality; in fact, not one scene looks or sounds like anything I’ve encountered in another play or movie or TV drama. Herzog has refused to shape the work as a parade of misery or as a triumph of the spirit, though it’s impossible to watch it without admiring the protagonist’s resilience and measured optimism. So you never feel you’re being told what to feel, which expands the play’s emotional scope because we feel so many things at the same time. Not just Mary Jane herself but all eight of the supporting characters as well are fully formed and completely distinctive; under Anne Kauffman’s fine direction, the four actresses differentiate them so precisely and sink so easily into them that they’re barely recognizable, if at all, when they show up in the second act in a new set of roles. Herzog based the play in part on her experience with her daughter Frances, who died at eleven of nemaline myopathy, and it has the freshness and the freedom, for lack of a better word, of lived experience. But though Herzog’s experience informs it, it’s her honesty and sensitivity and the sureness of her craft that make it so good.

We fall in love with Mary Jane, we also fall in love with Rachel McAdams, though in truth many of us who have been watching her work since Red Eye and the Canadian TV series Slings and Arrows did so long ago. McAdams is a vivid, even vivacious, but her great gift is her profound normalcy; the characters she plays are always in a normal emotional range, even when they are in extremis, as Mary Jane is, or witnesses to extreme distress, like her Boston Globe reporter in Spotlight. Herzog didn’t write big scenes for the character because Mary Jane is the opposite of a scene maker, yet the performance is mesmerizing. The closest she comes to a big scene is part of her interaction with Kat, where Mary Jane finally verbalizes her frustration with the music therapy program. Because of Alex’s bodily issues and his inability to communicate, it’s impossible to tell whether he’s cognitively damaged, but she has always operated under the assumption that he is capable of understanding her. She keeps telling him that someone will be coming to play music for him, yet this is the first time Kat’s schedule or that of her colleague has happened to mesh with Alex’s, and Mary Jane believes that her broken promises to him are causing him disappointment – that rather than benefiting him, the program is in fact causing him harm. Her complaint (in a beautifully written speech) is her single moment of anger and defeat, and McAdams’s authenticity and understatement make it unforgettable.

Archie Backhouse and Letty Thomas in Strategic Love Play. (Photo: Pamela Raith)

Strategic Love Play, in the intimate Soho Theatre, is a two-hander about a young man, Adam (Archie Backhouse), and a young woman, Jenny (Letty Thomas), who meet on the internet and agree to have drinks at a pub. Adam recently broke up with his girlfriend, and the love of his life is his best friend, who is married to someone else; he has imperiled that friendship with a drunken phone call in which he confessed his romantic feelings for her and put down her husband. Jenny has been so embittered by a history of romantic failure and a self-destructive impulse that, true to form, she plants a series of land mines on this first date with Adam. He sticks around for a while out of politeness, but eventually he gives up and walks out, confirming her expectations. But then, unexpectedly, he comes back with two more pints and a package of crisps, and the playwright, Miriam Battye, a talented writer with a finely tuned ear for dialogue, works hard to provide a reason for the turnaround. The two actors are splendid, especially Backhouse, and there’s never a moment in the play’s ninety-minute running time when we aren’t engaged by their depiction of the two characters. But it can’t overcome our sense that when, instead of getting out of an unpleasant encounter with a woman who seems dangerously on the edge of either explosion or implosion while the getting is good, Adam elects to return for more, it has turned into some other play.

– 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.

 

Monday, June 10, 2024

American Plays in London: Machinal and Long Day’s Journey into Night

Rosie Sheehy in Machinal. (Photo: Foteini Christofilopoulou)

The English director Richard Jones did a fine job with Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape, which began at the Old Vic and was showcased at the Armory in New York seven years ago. But his take on another 1920s expressionist classic, Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal, which just closed at the Old Vic, is a mistake pretty much from beginning to end. Machinal, inspired by the Ruth Snyder murder trial, is a feminist take on the protest play that was more or less forgotten for decades after its 1928 premiere and rediscovered when the Public Theatre revived it in 1990. (Arthur Hopkins directed the original production on a set designed by the legendary Robert Edmond Jones, with Zita Johann in the leading role.) Like other signal American expressionist screeds of the era, The Hairy Ape and Elmer Rice’s The Adding Machine, Machinal lashes out at the mechanized society that squashes individualist impulse and wrecks the soul, but Treadwell was the first playwright to identify that society as specifically patriarchal. The protagonist, known for the first half of the play only by the emblematic title the Young Woman, slaves in an office until her boss proposes marriage; she accepts him because he can make her life and that of her widowed mother comfortable (and, we assume, she’ll lose her job if she turns him down). But he’s insensitive and self-involved and he repels her physically. She finds childbirth torturous and doesn’t feel any love for her baby; Treadwell is the first dramatist to put post-partum depression on the stage. It isn’t until the Young Woman, finally referred to her by her name, Helen, goes to a speakeasy with a friend and is picked up by a handsome young adventurer who takes her to bed that she experiences any semblance of freedom and happiness. When the affair is over she kills her husband and is sentenced to the electric chair.

Saturday, June 8, 2024

Olé! Don Quixote Sweeps Toronto Off Its Feet

Rex Harrington (centre) and Jason Ferro (left) withaArtists of the Ballet in Don Quixote. (Photo: Karolina Kuras)

The National Ballet of Canada's North American premiere of Carlos Acosta's vibrant production of Don Quixote is an unmitigated triumph – a distinctive reimagining that breathes new life into this classic work originating from Marius Petipa's 19th-century Russian choreography. Acosta cemented his reputation as one of the greatest male dancers of his generation through his performances as the dashing barber Basilio, a central role in Don Quixote. With this production, first premiered by the Royal Ballet in 2013 and later remounted for Birmingham Royal Ballet in 2022, Acosta puts his stamp on a work that showcased his talents throughout his illustrious career. The production opened at Toronto's Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts on June 1, with performances running until June 9.

Tuesday, June 4, 2024

Deep Listening: The Immersive Music of Rosanna Gunnarson and Karin Johansson

Cover: Dan Froberg

I Grunda Vikar Ar Bottnarna Mjuka, 2024
(Outerdisk Recordings, Gothenberg Sweden)

 

“When they trailed their spikes over the strings, the strings sounded again; but they played in a new way, for now they were tuned to another pitch.” – August Strindberg

“The rest is silence.” – Hamlet’s last words

I once knew an artist, Mario Reis, who told me in a sotto voce tone that he desperately wanted to capture what he called the slow accretion of time, in a painting that would contain the true sediment of time. Not a mere representation of that phenomenon, mind you, he emphasized, but the actual sediment itself, splayed out on the canvas for onlookers to behold in all its fleeting and melancholy essence. He then proceeded, over the course of several years, to immerse his large stretched canvases in rivers, lakes, bays and occasionally oceans, allowing the silt to autograph his paintings, using the riverbeds and rocks as living brushes to establish a base upon which he would subsequently improvise his own subtle stylistic markings. His pictures thus became snapshots of time itself, and also left a residue of flowing watery movements amounting to frozen music. They stunned me in their beauty as artifacts which skillfully narrated nature as a sequence of uncontrolled and uncontrollable moments.

Monday, June 3, 2024

London Tide: Dickens and Brecht

The cast of London Tide at the National Theatre, London. (Photo: Marc Brenner)

As I think is often the case with the iconic nineteenth-century realists, Charles Dickens’s style has never fitted snugly into the official definition of realism. It’s realism embellished, realism plus. In his characters, especially the most memorable ones, the qualities that delineate them, like Miss Havisham’s desire for vengeance against the male sex in Great Expectations and Mr. Micawber’s eternal optimism in David Copperfield, are so exaggerated that the characters become metaphors for those qualities. Dickens’s genius for inventing imaginative visual symbols that sit alongside the characters – for Miss Havisham, the stale, mice-ridden wedding cake and the clock stopped at the moment when her intended groom abandoned her at the altar – enhances the process, lending the stories the aura of enchantment, which goes along with the author’s predilection for moral fables. What situates him in the realm of realism is a combination of his abundant love of detail and his psychological insight, particularly in the passages that elaborate the experience of a feeling or the nature of a behavior. Those are the moments in his novels when the abstract is transformed into the specific, which is the way realism works. That transformation is the midpoint between abstraction and universality: if the writer has rendered the general as an image so precise and layered that we can recognize it from our own experience, then we can see straight through its replication of real life to a profound truth. If you try to boil down Dickens’s approach to simple caricature, you can make him sound like it’s linked to what Brecht did later in his plays, but it’s the opposite – he’s not using exaggeration to distance his readers but to draw us in.

This distinction occurred to me while I was watching Ian Rickson’s Brechtian production for the National Theatre of London Tide, which Ben Power has adapted from Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend. Our Mutual Friend is one of the writer’s more obscure works and one of the most fascinating. It showcases common vices that take up residence in our blood: greed, jealousy, ambition and pride. We struggle against them, unless we succumb to them and become their agents, as do a number of the novel’s characters. It’s also about the corrupt values of an entrenched class society that reinforces those vices. When it appears that John Harmon, the estranged only son of a London rubbish magnate, has been drowned in the Thames River, the fortune he would have inherited goes instead to the millionaire’s loyal servants, the Boffins. They are generous enough to invite the heir’s intended bride, Bella Wilfer, who comes from a poor family, to move in with them and share their wealth. She is happy to do so; she never met her fiancé – their marriage was arranged by the millionaire – but now she feels abruptly disenfranchised, and she loves the idea of being rich. The complication is that Harmon isn’t really dead; the corpse that has turned up in the tide is of another young man bearing Harmon’s identifying papers. Liberated from the manipulations of an unkind father, Harmon takes another name, John Rokesmith, then secures the post of secretary to the Boffins so he can observe Bella. And he falls in love with her. So he sets a test to see whether she can get past her attraction to money if she sees at first hand how damaging it can be.

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.

Thursday, May 16, 2024

Water for Elephants: Big Top

Photo by Matthew Murphy.

The Broadway circus musical Water for Elephants, culled from Sara Gruen’s 2007 bestseller, assembles a cast of thirty singers, dancers, acrobats and puppeteers, some of whom have performed with legitimate circuses, some with the Cirque du Soleil, some with the Montreal artist collective The 7 Fingers (known in Canada by its full-length French title, Les 7 doigts de la main). I’ve never had such a good time reading the cast bios in a playbill. The smart, snappy book of Water for Elephants is by Rick Elice, who wrote Peter and the Starcatcher; the songs, the best of which are roisterous and infectious and have a folky twang, are by Pigpen Theatre Company, which created the delightful offbeat fairy tale The Old Man and the Old Moon. Jessica Stone’s production is simultaneously expansive and intimate; Takeshi Kata’s set is a series of scaffolds backed by a cyclorama with projections by David Bengali. The show is mixed-media in the truest sense – the choreography of the musical numbers by Jesse Robb and Shana Carroll (who is also credited with the circus design) always incorporates gymnastics and puppetry.