Friday, May 22, 2009

33 Variations

Susan Kellerman as Gertie and Jane Fonda as Katherine in 33 Variations

Moisés Kaufman first achieved fame as the artistic director of the Tectonic Theatre Company, with whom he collaborated on The Laramie Project, their ethnographically- based treatment of Laramie, Wyoming, in the aftermath of Matthew Shepard’s death at the hands of two local gay-bashing murderers. Tectonic’s first production was Indecent Exposure, which used a similar pastiche process to knit together various archival sources to offer a sympathetic, Brechtian rendition of the trials of Oscar Wilde. The company’s non-narrative, fragmented style suited their investigations into historical events of questionable morality and ethics, representing a theatrical refusal to take sides while still giving fraught proceedings the benefit of searing examination in performance.

In his solo outing as a playwright, Kaufman’s 33 Variations (on Broadway at the Eugene O’Neill, in a production I saw 5-9-09) narrates a somewhat different inquiry into history. Using a more conventional structure and style, the play centers on Dr. Katherine Brandt (Jane Fonda), a musicologist studying a minor project by Beethoven in which he obsessively wrote 33 different variations on a simple theme provided by an amateur colleague. In her effort to understand the root of Beethoven’s enduring fascination with the piece, Katherine comes to terms with her own desire to know and her own obsession with work at the expense of intimacy and family life.

The play falls squarely into the tradition of Wit and Third, plays in which smart women are punished for prizing their intellect over more traditionally gendered skills like nurturing. In the more brutal Wit, the female protagonist is a Donne scholar, an exacting teacher who’s isolated herself so that as she lies dying, only her own academic mentor comes to visit. Her death seems retribution for her life choices, even though the playwright, Margaret Edison, metaphorically describes the end of her life as a liberating release.

In 33 Variations, too, a talented female scholar has intimacy issues, and is propelled through the plot by her urgency to solve her research challenges before she’s overtaken by ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), the degenerate illness that will soon immobilize her body while it leaves her mind intact. Racing against a timetable that gives her a clear handicap, Katherine travels to Bonn to conduct her archival research against the wishes of her daughter, Clara (Samantha Mathis), and her doctors, insistent that she’s strong enough to see the trip through. Her journey toward understanding Beethoven’s motivations—since, as she notes, “History doesn’t record what he said”—also marks her own progress toward ill health, in vignettes titled with projected numbers that count off the variations. When the play reaches 33, Katherine’s life has nearly ended.

Kaufman’s conceit presents the past and present simultaneously. Katherine toils in the archive alongside her German colleague, Dr. Gertrude Landenburger (Susan Kellermann), the taciturn, gruff woman who guards Beethoven’s boxes with the fascist fist of archivists the world over. While the two women gradually come to trust and even care for one another, the play intercuts scenes among Beethoven (Zach Grenier) and his assistant, Anton Schindler (Erik Steele), negotiating with Diabelli, who wants to include Beethoven’s variation on his theme in a collection he plans to publish. Diabelli (Don Amendolia) swings between frustration and pleasure at Beethoven’s delay, his ego flattered by the master’s attention to his trifle. As Beethoven grows increasingly deaf—his own historical decline mirroring Katherine’s in the present—the variations take on more weight and import than they might have earlier in his life. Grenier--nominated for a Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Play--does a nice job impersonating a mad artist, and Steele is appropriately protective and self-righteous as his helper.

As Katherine’s health deteriorates, she refuses to return to the States, so Clara and her boyfriend, Mike (Colin Hanks—as in Tom’s son—who’s ingenuous and charming), join the scholar in Bonn. Katherine stumbles toward achieving historical understanding; she finds her tentative way toward a limited kind of intimacy with her daughter and Gertie, whom she finally claims as a friend (after at first demurring that the other woman is merely a “kind acquaintance”); and she comes to terms with her immanent death from an “orphan disease” that afflicts too few people to make it worth the research required to find a cure. The irony, of course, is that Katherine tracks an obscure reference in Beethoven’s oeuvre as her life’s work, while scientists can’t be bothered (or can’t be funded) to find an antidote to save her life.

Nothing much more than that happens in 33 Variations, but the production is replete with small pleasures that make it a worthy experience. The set recalls the vertically stacked wooden boxes that composed the décor for I am My Own Wife, a play about similar reconstructions and memory. Derek McLane, who designed the set for Wife and 33 Variations, riffs on the archive theme again here (and received a Tony nomination for his work), with acid-free boxes neatly laddered atop one another in rows that move up and down and side to side, like the portable, space-saving stacks in some libraries. These three-dimensional representations of a scholar’s labor, however, are far from dusty and untouched, as they were in Wife. They’re luminously lit (by designer David Lander, also Tony nominated), with light that graces them like treasures.

The other visual theme of the impressive but simple set appears on rolling racks, from which sheets of music hang in neat rows, overlaid at various moments with projections of music staffs and the graphic announcements of the numbers of ever accumulating variations and scenes. These moving racks and flying archives allow the set to transform across time and locale; the few set pieces or props—a high desk here, a piece of luggage or a backpack there—become iconic, but leave Kaufman (who also directed) plenty of room to shift his actors and to focus attention on the interactions that form the play’s emotional core. The production moves fluidly and gracefully, its naturalistic acting unimpeded by spectacle or technology, and offers the audience a visually rich but essentially unmediated engagement with its characters.

33 Variations’ other pleasures come from its cast and their beautifully understated acting. Fonda turns in a surprisingly sure, moving performance, appearing to empathize enormously with Katherine and her pursuits while understanding her emotional reticence and occasional coldness as the price of being a woman in a man’s field. Her friendship with Gertie blooms like a rose unfolding in slow motion, as the two women come to trust and admire one another and let down their mutual defenses. Watching two female scholars enjoy their research together, and one another’s company, is a pleasure seldom afforded by a Broadway production. Fonda and Kellermann make the most of their scenes, establishing warmth that’s all the more real for being so muted and taciturn.

As Katherine’s health fails, she becomes more fragile, but Fonda keeps her strong, never pitying the character or deploring her situation. Although the woman who began the aerobics craze in the 1980s is now 71, Fonda’s perfect posture and physical self-confidence make her a presence with which to reckon on stage. Yet her performance isn’t showy; she doesn’t come off as a diva enjoying the adoring attention of rapt fans. Instead, her Tony Award-nominated performance delivers the emotional complexities of a woman who’s chosen her intellect over intimacy without a moment’s regret.

Kaufman’s production—in its words and its images—honors Katherine and the idea of a woman like her, respecting her strength, her choices, and her determination without romanticizing or infantilizing her. In some ways, in fact, Katherine is perfectly ordinary, a woman whose work takes her burrowing deep into the past to look for arcane bits of information which, when she finds them, bring little pieces of the puzzle of knowledge and life clicking into place. No more, no less; but in this production--appropriately nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play--that’s plenty.

The Feminist Spectator

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

God of Carnage

Gandolfini, Davis, Harden, and Daniels in God of Carnage
Sara Gulwich, New York Times

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

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Mary Stuart

Schiller’s play Mary Stuart stages a fictitious meeting in the late-1500s between the queen of England and her cousin, the queen of Scotland, a pair of rulers who fought to Mary’s death over religion, power, and the English throne. But this Donmar Warehouse transfer production of a play written in the 1800s that refers to English history of the 1500s has an utterly contemporary aspect. The fabulous Janet McTeer just snagged a Tony Award nomination for her role as Mary; McTeer can make any part in any play vibrate with life and intelligence. She wields mesmerizing physical and emotional command of her role as Mary that’s thrilling to watch.

Peter Oswald’s new version updates Schiller’s language, so that the dialogue sounds fluent and natural to contemporary Western ears. For instance, the first scene, between Mary and her nurse, Hanna (Maria Tucci), who’s raised her and sees her to her death in the end, plays like a 21st century mother/daughter moment, with all the warm, casual physical intimacy derived from a long and candid relationship. The dialogue’s realistic cadences abate what might otherwise be a very talk-heavy play.

The production style, too, clears away what could have been historical visual clutter to reveal the kernel of the play’s conflict. Mary Stuart’s spare set butts up against a constructed wall of black brick that looms, immobile as the Queen of England, behind every scene. The stage is sometimes decorated with a simple bed and a chair; sometimes, with a small desk or a bench; sometimes, with nothing but the bodies of the actors, carved by light (designed by Hugh Vanstone).

The production exemplifies the austere, actor-centered Donmar Warehouse-style direction and design, which retains its appeal on Broadway. The sharp, cinematic lighting sculpts the actors, so that every word and every shift in emotion is recorded with searing verité. Director Phyllida Lloyd, who took so much flak for her work on the Mamma Mia film, creates a fluid, fast-paced production that focuses our attention on the human costs of state power, a theme that never loses its relevance.

The costume design, too, helps anchor the production’s transhistorical import. McTeer’s hair is bobbed in a modern cut, while her dress evokes the 16th century more than it quotes it. While the women are all dressed in vaguely period fashions, the men wear black business suits with white shirts and dark ties, clad as though they’re CIA or FBI operatives—which in some ways, they are. The men’s machinations disrupt what might otherwise be an innate sympathy between the two powerful women.

The long-imprisoned Mary, whom her cousin Elizabeth (Harriet Walter) suspects of conspiring to usurp her title to the English throne, believes that if Elizabeth will meet with her, and allow her to make her case in person, their common condition as women trying to rule will prevail and her cousin will allow Mary to go free. Schiller’s play stages the meeting, even though it never actually took place. The scene between the two women—by two terrifically talented actors—is the play’s climax, though a subsequent sequence of arresting, carefully choreographed stage pictures and haunting sound effects lead the spectator through the doomed Mary’s march to the guillotine.

In Schiller’s rendering, Elizabeth dictates Mary’s execution orders with murky ambivalence, and gives them to a bumbling aid-de-camp who’s utterly unsure of their exact import and her intent. His superior officer forestalls the aid’s frantic indecision by taking Elizabeth’s order in hand and setting Mary’s beheading in motion.

Lloyd makes terrific use of theatre effects to evoke the tragedy of Mary’s death. The court allows Mary to see a priest for her last rites, the first time she’s interacted with her own religious traditions in decades. McTeer as Mary exudes peace and lightness of spirit after her priestly blessing, and approaches her death with energy and dignity.

McTeer plays Mary’s final exit with ironic exuberance, as though death is finally her liberation. The men, who are the agents of her demise, line up at the top of the stage, facing off right into a bright, beckoning light. They linger there like harbingers of fate, while Mary completes her affairs and takes her place at the head of their line, in front of her trusty nurse, asserting her stateliness and her authority until her very end.

As they somberly march off, sound effects represent Mary’s beheading. Clanging chains echo across the stage, and we hear at last the final, horrible sound of the guillotine descending swiftly, with a metallic, audible sharpness, toward Mary’s neck.

After this provocative aural moment, the play returns to Elizabeth’s chamber, where she’s been persuaded into a change of heart, only to learn that her aid followed through on her command to consign her cousin to death.

Mary Stuart’s final scenes underline Elizabeth’s weak indecision and her refusal to take responsibility for her cousin’s execution. She twists her memory of her words so that she can blame her aid with impunity, punishing him, too, with death and multiplying the fatalities that cascade from her own ethical failure. The chain of miscommunication and arrogant abuses of power leads back to Elizabeth, but her rhetoric and her position allows her to pass along the assignment of blame.

What could be more relevant after eight years of George W. Bush’s administration, which accustomed Americans to leaders who shirked responsibility and twisted their own words to reflect new meanings when it was expedient? Who can forget the absurdity of that “Mission Accomplished” banner draped over the stacks of that war ship, as a flight jacket-clad president preened with false victory, and then soon rescinded his actions as though they never happened? Schiller’s play and Lloyd’s production let us wonder if history has evolved at all from Elizabeth’s machinations 500 years ago.

If Mary Stuart’s ending leaves us cynical about the ethics of poorly exercised power, Lloyd’s production nonetheless offers moments of brilliant abandon and hope in the most unlikely moments and places. In the second-act opener, as one of Mary’s many male confidants promises they’ve figured out how to stage her escape, she finds herself outside her tower for the first time in years. She and her nurse, standing in a courtyard, get caught in a downpour, represented by water cascading from the flies and covering the stage floor with lush pools of rain.

McTeer raises her face to the “rain,” reveling in its sensuality as it drenches her clothes and skin. Her fabulous commitment to the moment lets the audience feel her wondrous freedom; you can almost sense the freshness of the air and the cleansing effects of the water as Mary absorbs it with physical and spiritual hunger.

This moment continues to stick with me days after I saw the production (5-2-09), turning my memory of a play about one queen executed by another into an image of freedom from the cruelties of history and the impossible contradictions of female gender and power.

McTeer and Walter say that audiences have been so convinced that the two actors hate one another, they stage their curtain call to represent their mutual affection. After they take their separate bows, they put their arms around one another in a warm embrace and exit the stage holding hands.

Both women have been nominated for Tony Awards, and will compete in the June ceremony. But the Times reports that McTeer and Walters don’t care about the outcome, and are already chatting about what they’ll wear to the awards show. It’s not who wins, they agree—it’s how much they enjoy playing the game Mary Stuart so generously provides them as women.

The Feminist Spectator

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Susan Boyle: Self-Made Icon

But of what, might be the question?
Mark Harris, one of Entertainment Weekly’s best columnists (who happens to be Tony Kushner’s husband), remarks this week (5-8-09) that Boyle’s internet success sounds a hopeful note in an otherwise cynical and self- serving celebrity scene. Here’s a woman who attests that her only dream is to sing professionally. As Harris notes, she doesn’t want to be a “star”; she only wants to do what she loves.

The friend who sent me the link to the Boyle’s YouTube clip ( added a note that extolled the virtues of the event, suggesting how hopeful it made her feel in an historical moment in which there’s so much to worry about. Why has this ordinary woman from a tiny village in the UK inspired so much affection and adoration? What does she say to or about people that encouraged her video to be seen by over 120 million people around the world?

What does it mean that the horrible, churlish deprecation of the Britain’s Got Talent audience changed to frank admiration and wild enthusiasm once Boyle sang through a few bars of “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Mis? That art triumphs over the “misfortune” of homeliness and poor fashion sense? That faith and desire are really all that matters to raise someone from the relative boredom of a daily life spent caring for an aging mother into the unexpected adulation of an anonymous public more typically hungry for the facilely cutting humiliations of cruel reality show hosts like the despicable Simon Cowell?

I was as moved as the next viewer by watching Boyle sing on my computer screen. Most touching was Boyle’s faith in her own ability, her innocent certainty that nothing but her voice—not her appearance, her age, her hair, her infamous (and now tweezed) bushy eyebrows (see the "before" photo, above left)—would matter once she opened her mouth to sing.

I was moved by Boyles’s ingenuous resilience, her uncoached, open answers to Cowell’s miserable, insinuating questions, and her apparent belief in the essential goodness of man (well, “men”). Her delight in her public conquest, and her subsequent demurrals of anything but happiness about not being immediately booted off the show, are, as Harris suggests, refreshing anti-celebrity behavior.

Does it matter, then, that she was whisked off by a “family friend” to have her hair styled and colored, and those notable eyebrows plucked (see "after" photo, above right)? What to make of this “mini-makeover”? Does it matter if her unstylish frock will now surely be replaced with more fashionable clothing, as more recent photographs of Boyle suggest she’s been urged to purchase? Will her voice sound as pleasing if her looks are more conventional? Or was it the incongruity of the package and the voice that created the magic the first time around?

Was the television audience shamed by its knee-jerk judgment of Boyle’s appearance once she began to sing? Was its uproarious response to her song expiation of its own guilt at how they had already dismissed her? Harris says people are now acting toward her like she’s a “cute pet hobbit” to be infantilized and exoticized. I think she’s being treated like a “wild child,” someone who’s lived outside of civilization and its restrictive customs.

Harris reports that some spectators think her refreshed appearance will rob her of the authenticity that prompted her initial appeal. God forbid she should look like any other conventionally made-up and neatly dressed middle-aged woman and still sing like an angel. What would happen to the media hook if that were the case? No one cares about conventional middle aged women, whether or not they can sing so well.

The sexism—not to mention the “looks-ism” and ageism—of spectators’ response to Boyle’s audacity (as in, How dare a woman who looks like her think she could compete on a show like this?) makes her triumph bittersweet. On the basis of watching her sing, reading about her in People Magazine, and catching one or two minutes of television interviews after her appearance, Boyle seems to me like a nice enough, perfectly ordinary woman.

Her bravery and desire has thrust her into extraordinary circumstances from which she’ll most likely not escape unharmed. I don’t relish watching the media work its black magic, turning Boyle’s fairytale into something sordid and distasteful, something that will no doubt soil what appears to be her genuine desire to make herself and others happy with her voice.

Perhaps she should have stuck to singing in the shower.

The Feminist Spectator