Tag Archives: women playwrights

Circle Mirror Transformation

Annie Baker’s play, in a wonderful production directed by Sam Gold at Playwrights Horizons, takes place in the familiar, anonymous sterility of an all-purpose room at a community center, the kind of room that so often doubles as a crucible for community theatre and other arts. Exercise equipment clutters the floor, alongside the detritus of other objects useful for other kinds of groups. All become extraneous to the do-it-yourself creativity and faux self-help spiritualism-cum-acting lessons offered by the well-meant but self-involved would-be theatre guru, Marty.

As the oblivious leader of the four-member class, the middle-aged woman (played with a perfect balance of empathy and tone-deaf self-involvement by Deirdre O’Connell) tries to inspire her tiny band of followers to explore their inner psychology as a prerequisite to emotionally honest acting. But as Lauren (Tracee Chimo), the socially maladroit but emotionally acute teenager who’s the youngest person in the mismatched group of players notes plaintively, it’s not at all clear how any of this is going to help anyone learn how to be an actor.

Still, for Marty, the self-exploration and pseudo-psychologizing that are her stock in trade provide their own reward. It’s not at all clear that Marty has ever acted professionally; she’s one of those so-called artists who hang out a shingle on the basis of a happy fantasy rather than real life experience. Clearly, she’s cajoled her husband, James (Peter Friedman), to be part of the group, and he tries his best to go with the flow until the psychobabble gets the better of him and he takes the trust exercises a bit too far.

Schultz, Marty’s other male student, is a hapless divorcee with pent-up anger issues.Schultz is still not over the fact that his wife has left him, but he falls hard for Theresa, the supposedly “real” actor who’s moved to this remote hamlet of Shirley, Vermont, to escape her own relationship issues, as well as her own failed career. She’s just broken up with her boyfriend, an older man who controlled her jealously, a rather masochistic involvement that Theresa seems to have enjoyed more than she’s willing to admit.

Marty hurls herself into grooming this ragtag group, putting them through the ridiculous emotional recall, storytelling, and trust exercises familiar to any one who’s taken a community acting class at their local high school or playhouse. She asks the students to interview one another and then perform the narratives they collect, stories that Baker uses to structure the play’s cumulative revelations. Telling personal stories borrowed from their partners in a first-person form provides a rather sweet, halting demonstration of how the students get to know one another.

Since it’s impossible for them to perform one another without the barest hint of editorializing, we come to know the characters through how they describe and observe one another’s flaws and discrepancies during their interviews. As the six weeks of the class tick by, announced by slides projected between each scene, the characters’ back-stories are filled in a bit more, in tales that the students eventually use against one another as the trust exercises back-fire.

Each of the characters becomes likable in their own slightly askew way, as Baker gradually reveals their humor, their pain, and their sorrow. Several times, they lie on their backs on the studio floor trying to count collectively but consecutively to ten without stepping on one another’s numbers. The exercise is meant to foster trust and good listening skills. That the small ensemble can’t actually get to ten until near the play’s end marks both their failure and, at last, the ways in which they have indeed grown closer, more attune to one another’s presences and habits, their desires and frustrations.

O’Connell, as Marty, does an excellent job creating the pseudo-sincere care and attention of the not very talented acting teacher. She carefully watches each improvised moment she sets up among her pupils, positioning herself for optimal observation in a contrived, “artistic” pose, never explaining why she’s putting them through these emotional paces and never articulating what exactly they’ve done well or poorly. That each of the students simply follows her lead, rarely questioning her motives or their acting education, rings too true. I could hear who among my fellow spectators had taken such a class by the knowing laughter we shared at those familiar moments.

Marty’s husband, James, tries hard to be supportive of his flaky artistic wife. Marty shares the story of their meeting, a romantic moment at a friend’s wedding that depends on the kind of kismet in which only an aging hippy bohemian could continue to invest. But it becomes clear over the course of the play that their happiness is frayed, the romance fading. Their daughter, Erin, has stopped speaking to her father because Marty revealed to her a meaningless indiscretion James committed during his first marriage. James is devastated by his daughter’s silence and her sudden allegiance with Marty against him.

Friedman conveys James’s perplexed confusion over these sudden turns in his life, finding emotional candor in a character without a whole lot to say. James’s vulnerability makes him prey to the sultry charms of Theresa, the failed New York actress who’s here in the middle of nowhere to heal her own emotional wounds, and winds up seducing both men (and the teenaged Lauren) with her comfort in her body and her apparently open, if facile, vulnerability.

The versatile Reed Birney (whose raw performance in Blasted at Soho Rep was one of last season’s best) is excellent here as the wounded Schultz, who quickly falls in love with Theresa and is just as quickly and violently devastated when their brief affair doesn’t last. His need is palpable, even before clueless Marty makes the unsuccessful couple act out a scene in which his need becomes his only dialogue. Birney plays Schultz’s mercurial mood swings convincingly; even his sudden, menacing aggression seems justified when his rage boils up out of nowhere in the midst of his “objective” exercise with Theresa.

The play’s humor keeps it entertaining and holds at bay what could be more maudlin moments. As the baleful Lauren, Chimo is superb at physical humor; her expressions, as she reacts to the sometimes peculiar interactions of the adults, are priceless. Chimo can raise an eyebrow, widen her eyes, clench her fists, or raise her shoulders and communicate an entire paragraph of response to the absurdities of what she sees.When in the penultimate scene Marty asks her students to write down, distribute anonymously, and then read out loud something about themselves that they’ve never told another soul, it’s obviously Lauren’s slip of paper that says she secretly believes she’s smarter than everybody else in the world.

Even though she’s been an awkward, comically withdrawn presence through much of the play, that personal secret is clearly true. Lauren knows that her parents aren’t happy; knows that Marty and James’s marriage is headed for its end; sees through Theresa’s seductions while she’s also attracted to them; and is the only character in the play who expresses well-founded doubt that Marty’s ministrations are really going to make them better actors.

The shared secrets—meant to open the students emotionally and bind them psychologically—also reveal (if the characters are telling the truth) that Schultz has a secret addiction to internet porn; that James is in love with Theresa; and that Marty thinks she was molested by her father. These carefully held truths, when shared, seem at once virtuous and pathetic, and set in motion the play’s final bittersweet revelations.

As the orchestrator of what become emotionally acute confessions, Marty is as devastated as the others at what she hears. But she persists, like the soulful artist she believes herself to be, and ends the six-week class by asking Lauren and Schultz to act out one final improvisation, in which they meet one another 10 years later and share news of their lives.

The scene is both hilarious and poignant, as Schultz takes the opportunity to say out loud how Theresa “messed with my mind,” and for Lauren to predict that Marty and James will divorce, along with her parents. While Schultz asks the probing questions, playwright Baker clarifies that it’s Lauren who’s been prescient and wise all along, as she sees clearly into their collective futures.

Lauren enrolled in the class because she wants to be an actress, but realizes as she improvises her view of the future that she’ll be better off as a veterinarian, and sees herself 10 years out happily mated with a boyfriend in the same field. She’s kept in touch with Marty, who it turns out really does care for the odd young woman, predicting that at least one of the relationships so cavalierly dissected by the acting class has been established “for real” and will last. That final moment is both sad and hopeful, as Lauren’s improvised vision brings each character to a rueful but useful understanding of who they really are.

Circle Mirror Transformation is a lovely evening of theatre: fun and funny, smart and knowing, and hugely generous about the imperfect characters Baker portrays so simply and clearly. The play might not change your life, but like the acting class Marty wants so much to offer, it does offer insights into what our lives are and might be about, and demonstrates that the artistic impulse to see something about the human condition really can be felt, even in those tired, empty, all purpose rooms.

The production’s run has been extended to November 21.

The Feminist Spectator

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God of Carnage

Yazmina Reza writes crowd-pleasers, plays that appear to give the audience something meaty on which to chew, but essentially put her characters on a predictable collision course, a highway of lite moral complexities in which they find themselves unwittingly and sometimes unwillingly debating ethical issues that finally sound a bit hollow.

But Carnage’s farce kept me from taking it too seriously. Instead, I enjoyed the four fine actors volley Reza’s dialogue (translated by Christopher Hampton) back and forth with superb timing and physical comedy. Although many critics find Carnage a pale imitation of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, I thought the play too farcical to accept that comparison.

Sure, God of Carnage concerns two couples who begin their evening with polite, decorous banter, trying to come to terms with a school yard altercation that’s left one of their sons “disfigured” by the other’s aggression. And sure, the evening ends with both couples drunk and disheveled, their secrets and pretensions summarily revealed, and all of them crumpled in defeated heaps around a living room that’s been trashed by their exploits. But this superficial resemblance to Albee’s classic domestic conflagration makes the comparison unfair to a comedy that wants to bite, but ultimately patches up any breaks it leaves in the skin.

Reza concocts a delightful, short evening of smart comedy by four actors (Tony Award nominees all) who’ve definitely got game. God of Carnage’s confectionary pleasures derive mostly from its actors’ obvious pleasure in zinging one-liners back and forth for a quick 90 minutes under the smooth, confident, and well-paced direction of Matthew Warchus. The actors perform with comic élan and style, delivering this light parody of contemporary parental mores through the social, class-based competition it stages between two white, heterosexual, upper-middle class couples that feels to them much more serious than it appears to us.

In Reza’s conceit, Alan (Jeff Daniels) and Annette (Hope Davis) visit Michael (James Gandolfini) and Veronica (Marcia Gay Harden) to resolve the crisis precipitated by Alan and Annette’s son’s “disfiguring” attack on Michael and Veronica’s boy. The playground conflict has left Michael and Veronica’s boy missing two of his teeth, a crisis apparently severe enough in the bourgeois cosmology Reza depicts that their parents’ draw up what sounds much like an official legal agreement about what’s happened and how they’ve all agreed to respond.

The boys’ skirmish occasions what escalates into their parents’ all out battle to maintain their shredded self-respect and dignity. In a predictable but nonetheless enjoyable trajectory, their awkward and contrite meeting turns into a scathing indictment of neglectful child-rearing, corrupt pharmaceutical practices, pretentious art venerating, and bourgeois propriety that barely covers the quickly melting icy veneer on which these two marriages skate.

The meeting, at Michael and Veronica’s faux-modern co-op, begins with the superficial chatter of two couples who don’t know one another reluctantly thrust together to work out their boys’ conflict. But as their conversation continues past the point at which Alan and Annette should have said their good-byes, they begin to recognize in one another the mirror images of their own failures and falsities.

Jeff Daniels, as Alan, performs a perfectly pompous, self-congratulatory high-powered lawyer with a cell phone glued to his ear. Every time it rings, he announces, “I have to take this,” loudly imposing his pretentious conversations on the gathering then appearing indignant when the other three overhear his business. Daniels delivers a sharp, wry performance as a man puffed up by his own self-importance.

A land line phone also rings constantly throughout the play, as Michael’s mother checks in with her son while she’s at a doctor’s appointment. Gandolfini, as Michael, gets the timing just right, switching from the heat of battle with his guests to an enforced calm to speak with his aging, unwell mother, whose plaintive calls regularly interrupt the couples’ engagement. In one of Reza’s too convenient, calculated but perfectly funny coincidences (mild spoiler alert), Michael’s mother is told she’ll be treated with the toxic medicine whose effects Alan has been coaching his client to deny in his cell phone exchanges.

As their meeting devolves into a wonderfully physical brawl full of alcohol, ruined art books, projectile vomiting, and a pretentiously proffered cake, the actors rise to the comic occasion with impeccable style. Each character has his or her own meltdown, following an arc that requires the actor to move from faked, attentive concern into high umbrage, up to a physical crisis that dishevels their clothing and overturns some furniture, then down into resigned indifference to the revelation of their common and essential imperfections. Each character is unmasked as much less than he or she first appeared–more ordinary, whiny, and unhappy than the accomplished, socially exceptional people they first present.

To Reza’s credit, the characters’ devolutions occur without regard to gender. Alan and Michael reveal themselves to be as shallow and unhappy as Annette and Veronica. No one is more responsible than another for their mutually destructive encounter. Gender alliances shift throughout the play. Halfway through, the men share cigars and bourbon and a bitter understanding of the silliness of their lives, and the women pair off to commiserate by ridiculing their husbands.

At other moments, the couples rearrange themselves to express at least a superficial empathy, Alan for Veronica and Annette for Michael. When the couples inadvertently reveal their pet names for one another (Alan and Annette call each other “Woof Woof”), their intimacies seem childish and reductive, no more meaningful than the names their sons called each other on the playground.

Gandolfini’s presence inspired the audience to applaud at the play’s opening the night I attended (5-2-09). As the actors waited for the clapping to die down, I saw Hope Davis wink at Gandolfini, a lovely, warm tribute to his fandom before the actors began to chew the scenery. The affection the actors clearly feel for one another shows in their beautifully orchestrated performances.

In fact, what might at first seem a cynical casting choice calculated to boost box office turns out to be a coup for Gandolfini in his post-Tony Soprano era. Watching him transform Michael from a husband trying his best to conform to the overly polite customs of upper-middle-class behavior to a man who can’t stand the suit coat he wears, and happily rips his shirt out of his pants when the going gets rough, is one of the production’s many pleasures.

Likewise, Marcia Gay Harden, whom I followed on television in her stand-out performance as the Iago-like lawyer for the corrupt corporation on Damages this season, offers a grounded and hysterical turn as Veronica. Her horror when her precious art books are accidentally covered with vomit is a high point of the evening.

Hope Davis is also terrific as Annette, the character whose movement from good to bad is the least predictable. Perhaps because of Davis’s inherently sympathetic presence, and her slight fragility, even when she’s performing indignation, Annette becomes the fulcrum of the couples’ full-pitch battle. When she indulges in alcohol and quickly gets drunk, Davis captures the pleasure, exasperation, and fear of a woman unaccustomed to losing social and emotional control. She’s also very funny.

All in all, Reza satirizes the wreckage of heterosexual marriage in God of Carnage, the petty bitterness that courses under what are carefully calculated to look like successful, luxe upper-middle class relationships sailing into their pre-destined futures without a ripple on the glassy waters of their lives. She satirizes how children become possessions, simple pawns for adults who at best treat them indifferently, and at worse, actually despise them.

While the comedy lets the audience laugh, Reza sneaks in recognitions that balance the evening’s affects. Somewhere in the uproarious meeting, the playwright comments on how people who no doubt mirror many in the Broadway audience live their lives. Under the humor, she urges spectators to consider what matters and what doesn’t, what we can control and what we can’t. By continually shifting the allegiances across couples and between the men and the women, Reza clarifies that no one wins, and that the stakes are equally high or low for all.

The production’s vivid realism and impeccable acting make it easy to swallow and probably mitigates whatever gentle punch to the gut Reza might intend. Watching actors more often seen in serious roles exercise their comic chops is entirely enjoyable. That God of Carnage concerns squarely middle-aged people also makes it a refreshing antidote to the many contemporary plays that address the angst of 20-something white characters figuring out how to live.

Reza examines the superficially comfortable, apparently successful lives of white upper-middle-class heterosexuals at the point when they’re supposed to be reveling in their achievements. God of Carnage demonstrates that the façade of their marriages and their families are already weakened and could be destroyed by the devastating moral emptiness and social pretension that’s chewed into their relationships like termites into the family house.

God of Carnage isn’t Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, but it’s a great deal of fun.

The Feminist Spectator

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Chasing Manet

Tina Howe’s new play, at Primary Stages (which I saw just before it opened on 4/4/09), continues her career-long exploration of the foibles of blue-blood families and the women they oppress. This version of the story regards a patrician woman toward the end of a distinguished life, who finds herself—thanks to her feckless son—ripped summarily from a life spent as a painter in Boston and stashed in a nursing home in the Bronx.

Jane Alexander plays Catherine Sargent (fictionalized cousin to the great American painter John Singer Sargent), wearing a head full of long, flowing white hair and radiating the wasted vitality of someone stored to wait for her death much too early. Even curled up in a bitter fetal position at the beginning of many scenes, Alexander retains the play’s focus. Her intelligence and charisma as Catherine helps push a play that might have been a predictable trifle into more compelling evening.

Alexander’s terrific partner in this transformation is Lynn Cohen, who finds the humanity, warmth, and comedy in a character suffering the beginnings of Alzheimer’s disease. Cohen plays Rennie Waltzer, who becomes Catherine’s new roommate at the nursing home, bringing with her a large and loud family of Long Island Jews (played by Julie Halston, David Margulies, among others).

Director Michael Wilson brings the actors performing as the Jewish family close to stereotype—that fine line between laughing at and laughing with is walked here—but manages to make them familiar but particular, with individual stories that keep them from falling squarely into type.

Rennie’s husband Herschel died several years before, sending her quickly into an emotional and mental spiral down toward losing her mind. She thinks that Herschel is still alive, calling out to him to observe the things that amuse her—frequently—in her new life. Rennie thinks she’s living in a four-star hotel, much to Catherine’s dismay.

Catherine’s plaint is that she’s trapped in a place she finds far beneath her; her burden is that she’s now blind, and truly can’t care for herself. Her son, Royal (Jack Gilpin, in an appropriately sedate turn as the ineffectual middle-aged man), is a Yeats professor at Columbia who moves her to New York thinking he’ll participate in her care and see her often. But his stressful academic life limits his availability, and he winds up leaving her warehoused, isolated, and lonely.

Catherine’s acidic fury at being left to die among strangers she openly finds inferior requires Alexander to convey a complicated set of emotions. On one hand, her anger makes her caustic and her arrogance can be tiring. On the other hand, the audience wants to empathize with a woman who’s clearly still smart and healthy. Catherine is a blind painter, who has to conjure her favorite images—especially Manet’s Déjeuner sur L’Herbe—from an old and deep mental archive. The injustice of watching someone who loves light and color no longer be able to see is enough to draw spectators to the character.

That blindness is Catherine’s only challenge raises disability politics that Howe doesn’t seem to consider.Why couldn’t Royal have found help for her at her own home in Boston? Why couldn’t Catherine learn to get around with a cane or a guide dog? But Chasing Manet is a comedy, which apparently lets Howe off the hook for not thinking very deeply about the logistics of her central metaphor.

The nursing home is indeed demeaning, as Catherine claims when she’s invited to toss around a beach ball that a well-meaning physical therapist suggests to his charges is molten lava. Catherine simply refuses to play, sitting off to the side wearing her own sour whimsy—she’s splattered a pair of spectacles with red paint and crashes into the physical therapy scene calling herself Oedipus. When no one rises to her joke—most of the others are wheelchair bound, while Catherine is mobile and strong—she sits outside the circle, sulking.

The play clarifies that the indignities of aging aren’t suffered only by the rich and by those still for the most part mentally and physically intact. The beach ball scene, and other interactions between the staff and the residents, shows how the elderly are infantilized, even by personnel as well meant as those Howe creates here. Played with sensitivity and humor by Vanessa Aspillaga and Rob Riley—the only two actors of color in the cast—the nursing home staffers are entirely empathetic, seeing the people with whom they work as people to respect and engage. But even for them, it’s clearly difficult to keep from speaking down to people who are, in fact, losing control of their bodies and their minds.

Sometimes the play wants us to identify with Catherine’s son and Rennie’s daughter, who’ve enrolled their respective parents in this circumscribed life because there seemed no other choice. Howe writes both characters scenes in which they express their fear at losing their parent, and both are given ample reasons for their decision about where to let their mother end her life. In other scenes, Howe wants us to feel the indignities of aging and losing control of your own agency.

Aside from Cohen and Alexander, the nursing home residents are played quite over the top by the other actors (all of whom rotate through multiple roles as family members and friends, nursing staff and residents). They select physical and emotional mannerisms—based on the excesses of Howe’s text in these scenes—that push their characters into caricatures. One is a sex-obsessed elderly gentleman who can’t keep his hands out of his pants. Another is paranoid and fearful; another dotty and weird, with uncontrolled facial tics (Halston, overacting as an old woman here, while she’s more reserved and effective as Rennie’s daughter, Rita). That these scenes push into the absurd and grotesque undercuts the critique Howe wants to launch of how older people are treated by their families.

Assisted by topnotch actors like Alexander and Cohen, Catherine and Rennie retain the story’s focus.Rennie’s exuberant love of life begins to thaw Catherine’s icy Brahmin reserve. And once Catherine realizes that Rennie, who at least can see, could be a partner in her plan to escape from the prison of assisted living, the two strike up an unlikely friendship that gives Rennie back her dignity and Catherine back her heart.

As farfetched as Chasing Manet’s resolution might really be, it’s a pleasure to see two strong older female characters get what they want and deserve (see Howe’s conversation with Jane Alexander). That they enable one another, and wrest back control of their lives, immersing themselves in pleasures and choices their children prematurely decided they should lose, lets Chasing Manet sound a triumphal, hopeful note. Watching Alexander and Cohen play off of one another in elegantly timed, warm repartee reminded me of Angela Lansbury and Marian Seldes in Terrence McNally’s Deuce a few seasons back. That two-hander gave the older actors more complex live stories but less to do, as they sat watching a tennis match and reminiscing about their lives of competition with one another and the tour. In Chasing Manet, women who should by rights be less mobile are ironically empowered to travel—literally and figuratively. Perhaps that difference comes from Howe’s career-long attention to women’s plight, and her determination that neither age nor gender should hold a good woman back.

The Feminist Spectator