Sunday, March 8, 2009
Stoppard Lite ("Now with one-third the wit and intelligence!"). There are two kinds of clever plays: plays which are actually clever, and therefore smart, which make your average audience feel dumb; and plays which feel like they are actually clever, but are not, and are therefore designed to make an audience feel smart. Impressionism is the second kind of clever play. Like dots on a canvas which give the illusion of form when seen from a distance, the script of this play is nothing but pointillism writ large.
What doesn’t work. The writing: chatty dialogue does not a play make, though it does a teleplay make, and the author has extensive TV experience. The Africa flashback in which the author reveals that he has never even been to the Africa part of Epcot, never mind the real continent. The doubling (see below). A heavy directorial whack to your head at the end of Act One. The writing. The established fact that Irons’ character has known Allen for two years (this is a play, not a novel; two months tops, okay?). And did I mention the writing?
What works. The acting. The Magic Negro in Act Two. Actually all of Act Two, which plays like a single unit. Of course it’d mean a lot more if the characters in Act Two were the same as the ones in Act One, but they’re not. The Act One characters, with all their flashbacks and history and angst, are only glanced at in Act Two, which confirms the (cough) impression that Act One is filler designed to flesh out a simple idea so that it becomes a full evening. The overall effect is of eating one of those onion rings that's 80% batter and only 20% onion.
What good casting brings to a meh script. Credit casting agent Laura Stanczyk with getting the absolute best actors for a script like this, because Jeremy Irons and Joan Allen spend most of the play filling in nearly all the empty spaces in the script with color, depth, and conviction, like two experienced portrait painters confronted with a cartoon. The end result is greater than the words on the page: you not only feel like you actually know these people, you feel like they’re people, period. Which is no small achievement here. Most of the scenes in this play indicate, rather then expose, like a sketch indicates a sculpture. Allen and Irons breathe life into those indications until you could swear you were seeing something actually come alive.
What’s this about again? In Act Two, there’s an extended argument/discussion about the meaning of a painting -- what it means to the people viewing it, how we all in a sense see ourselves in a work of art, how we project ourselves and our desires or fears into art. It would be great if this was the theme of the entire play, but it isn’t. Oh, it’s indicated, like everything else. Which will make your average audience feel very smart when they realize: “Hey! She likes that mother/daughter painting because she’s the daughter in it! Brilliant!” To which I can only say “No –- sorry –- brilliant is when you don’t notice it because it’s organic.” (And remind me to take my own advice the next time I come up with a “brilliant” idea, okay?)
The misuses of doubling. Whether or not you believe that Robert Armin played both Cordelia and The Fool in the original production of King Lear, it makes thematic sense that the same actor plays both a rejected daughter and the one character onstage who keeps tweaking Lear about that rejection. (Even when he looks at the Fool, he sees Cordelia! Now THAT is brilliant!) But in this play, when Jeremy irons doubles as Joan Allen’s father and then a painter with whom she is involved, it makes you ask thematic questions the play never raises. Doubling by its nature indicates depth, so if you’re not going to write a script with any depth, then don’t double just because it saves money. Or if you have to do it to save money, then GIVE it depth. (It's called "rewriting," Michael Jacobs.) Is Joan Allen father-fixated? Is she attracted to painters? Is she priggish? (She refuses to pose nude.) All these are questions which could be addressed just enough for an audience to make the kind of connections which add depth to a script and a performance. But those questions are not addressed, any more than the implications of the Act One flashbacks are carried over to Act Two. It’s like the characters which were set up pre-intermission went off for a drink while a couple of different characters took the stage for the last 30 minutes.
And yet. There’s funny stuff here. Marsha Mason is a breath of fresh air. Andre DeShields is the best Magic Negro ever. And you will be engaged. You will laugh. You will want these people to get together. You will want to get teary-eyed when they finally kiss. And like the actors onstage, you will have to do most of the work to make that happen.