Monday, November 22, 2010

Off Broadway: The Language Archive

The Language Archive by Julia Cho, now playing at the Roundabout at Laura Pels Theatre, treads familiar ground in its explorations of language and the consequences of miscommunications between men and women – but it does so in such a delightful, original manner that it makes the whole endeavor more than worthwhile.

The basic story line is simple: George (Matt Letscher) is a professional linguist who runs an archive dedicated to the preservation of dying languages and who speaks a dozen languages (including the artificial universal language Esperanto) himself; yet he is somehow unable to communicate effectively with his own wife Mary (Heidi Schreck). Nor is she any more able to communicate effectively with him.

George is cool and abstract, grieving more over the death of a language than the death of an animal, a human being, or even a multitude of human beings. Mary, on the other hand, bursts into tears at the slightest provocation and is taken to attempting to communicate with George through aphorisms (with about as much depth as those found in Chinese fortune cookies) which she writes on scraps of paper, conceals about the house, and then denies having written. It comes as no surprise to the audience when Mary walks out of the marriage, although it does appear to come as a surprise to George.

There are several sub-plots as well. One centers on Emma (Betty Gilpin), George’s associate at the archive who has been in love with him for years, but who has been just as unable to communicate her feelings for him as he and Mary have been to communicate their feelings for one another. A second relates to a suicidal baker (John Horton) with whom Mary swaps roles, to their mutual advantage, shortly after she abandons her husband. And a third, the most phantasmagorical of them all, relates to Emma’s meeting with Ludovic Lazarus Zamenhof (John Horton), the true inventor of Esperanto who actually died in 1917.

But the most important of the play’s sub-plots – and this one not only does break new ground but, in doing so, provides the most entertainment of all - revolves around Alta (Jayne Houdyshell) and Resten (John Horton), an elderly couple from some unnamed Eastern European region who are the only remaining speakers of the Elloway language left on Earth. George is eager to transcribe their conversations before they die, lest their language die with them but, having transported them from their native land to his archive, he is suddenly confronted with another communications problem: it seems that Alta and Resten are angry with one another and, when they are angry, they refuse to communicate in Elloway (which they perceive as a language of love) but only speak English (which they consider an appropriate language with which to express hate and anger).

And why are they so angry with one another? For a host of trivial reasons, of course: Resten occupied the window seat on their flight from home rather than offering it to Alta. Resten hogged the arm rest between them. But for at least one other reason as well that might not be so trivial after all: Resten has refused to eat the food that Alta has so lovingly prepared for him.

(Apparently, in introducing this conflict over food, the playwright has focused on a traditional form of male-female interpersonal communication: women manifest their devotion by proffering food to their partners and men express theirs through their gracious acceptance of it. A bit one-sided, perhaps, but surely with a modicum of evolutionary truth to it. And, as if to underscore this point, when Mary assumes the role of bread baker after abandoning her husband, she does so with a vengeance, baking all night and distributing her breads all day. Once she has done that, she is capable of affectionately bestowing a loaf of bread on George when he ultimately discovers her whereabouts.)

But back to Alta and Resten. At one point, their mutual animosity rises to such a pitch that they impose irrevocable shunning spells on one another – vowing never to communicate with each other again. If the spells are not reversed (and, as it turns out, the last Elloway shaman capable of reversing such spells died years ago), they appear destined never to speak to one another again – which would completely thwart George’s aim at preserving their language for posterity.

So these are the intertwined linguistic questions requiring resolution. Will George find the words to win Mary back? Will Mary find the means to express her feelings to George in a way he will understand? Will Emma finally communicate her feelings to George? Will Alta and Resten resolve their differences and speak to one another again in their native Elloway?

I won’t disclose the answers to those questions because I don’t want to ruin the whole theatre-going experience for you. But I will say this: you are likely to discover that the actual resolution of those issues will be less important to you than the insights you’ll derive from interpreting the play’s themes. And it is even more likely that your interpretations of those ideas may be at considerable variance to my own or to those of whomever you might chance to see this play with. Which is all to the good, of course, since the most worthwhile plays, at least in my experience, are those which lend themselves to a variety of interpretations.

Consider, for example, whether our perception of reality is dependent upon the language we use to describe it or whether the language is selected to describe what is already there. Does a society or culture die when its language dies, or does the death of a culture presage the death of a language? On a slightly more mundane note, when Mary first told John she was leaving him, she entreated him to say something – clearly seeking an emotional, ideally tear-laden, response from him. But John, who we know to be a cool, abstract, dispassionate sort who cares more for languages than for people, did not weep nor even avow his unconditional love for Mary; the best he could muster why to tell her not to leave.

So does that mean that it was John’s fault that the marriage ended because he could have preserved it with a different choice of words and emotional expressions at the moment? But why should the choice of specific words be so important? When Alta and Resten are explaining expressions in Elloway to George later in the play, one of the points they make is that their idiomatic expression for “I love you” actually translates out literally as “Don’t leave me.” So if those words mean “I love you” in Elloway, why couldn’t Mary have understood them that way from John in English? And why should Mary get a pass on her idiosyncratic written messages, irrational behavior and the fact that it was, after all, she who left the marriage, not he. Finally, when John presents Mary with a mixed tape expressing “I love you” in every language he knows, why is that not enough? So is it really Mary’s fault after all?

The power of words apparently has its limitations, if substance is lacking.

The play intentionally has been staged and directed in something of a cartoony, two dimensional, or fairy tale manner which makes it difficult for even the most accomplished actors to portray their roles in considerable depth. Nonetheless, Matt Letscher, Heidi Schreck and Betty Gilpin all performed admirably and John Horton who, in addition to playing the part of Resten took on the additional roles of L.L. Zamenhof and the suicidal baker, performed all of his roles superbly.

But the highest praise must be reserved for Jayne Houdyshell who virtually stole the show in her roles as Alta and as Emma’s Esperanto teacher. Her performances alone are worth the price of admission.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Lincoln Center: A Free Man of Color

Part Restoration Comedy and part panoramic saga, A Free Man of Color by John Guare, now playing at Lincoln Center at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. Ultimately neither fish nor fowl, it proves to be a great disappointment.

Originally commissioned by The Public Theater in 2002 to write an epic play on race and class in New Orleans circa 1801, Guare submitted his initial draft to George C. Wolfe, then head of the Public, in 2004. That draft ran to 250 pages and, had the play been produced as then written, it would have run for five hours. Unfortunately, the Public’s attempt to convince Guare to cut it down to size was so at odds with Guare’s own vision of the play that the Public ultimately canceled its plans to produce it and the play was picked up by Lincoln Center where it has just opened with Wolfe still involved as director.

Under Wolfe’s prodding, the play has been cut back extensively so that it now runs just two and a half hours. But the price paid for that editing job has been enormous. The net result is that the play now comes across as two distinctly different plays, badly cobbled together.

The play’s first act is a hodgepodge of a Restoration Comedy (or perhaps a parody of a Restoration Comedy) with all the rhyming couplets, ribald humor, swooning insatiable frustrated wives, cuckolded husbands and adolescent references to Jacque Cornet’s (Jeffrey Wright’s) superior phallic endowment that we have come to expect of that genre. But the second act, in an apparent attempt at retaining Guare’s epic vision, spans the world, transitioning abruptly from New Orleans to Washington D.C. to Sante Domingue to France and back again, centering on the events leading up to the Louisiana Purchase and its subsequent social, racial and geopolitical consequences. Worse yet, the entire olio is liberally sprinkled with satirical buffoonish appearances by virtually anyone of note at the time who might have entered Guare’s mind: Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, Napoleon Bonaparte, Josephine, Tallyrand, Georges Feydeau, Meriwether Lewis, Robert Livingston, Walter Reed, King Carlos Cuarto and more (indeed, the total cast comes to 33 with several actors playing more than one role).

Guare’s error (and by extension Wolfe’s and Lincoln Center’s, I think) was to refuse to make the difficult choice between settling for a thematically much smaller and more manageable play, on the one hand, or retaining the epic sweep of Guare’s initial vision and producing the play in all its original five hours grandeur - perhaps over a period of days as a trilogy in the fashion of Tom Stoppard’s epic and very successful The Coast of Utopia. Either of those approaches just might have worked but this attempt at doing it all in one appears to have been doomed to failure.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Off Off Broadway: Benefactors

First produced on Broadway a quarter century ago with a star-studded cast that included Sam Waterston, Glenn Close, Simon Jones and Mary Beth Hurt, Michael Frayn’s Benefactors opened in 1985 to rave reviews. Unfortunately, I never got to see that production – more’s the pity – but I have just done the next best thing: I saw Retro Production’s Off Off Broadway revival of the play at the Spoon Theatre and I found it absolutely mesmerizing. It is truly a gem.

The play revolves around the inter-relationships among David (Matthew Semlew), a well-meaning architect seeking to build new homes to replace the “twilight area” housing of Basuto Road; his wife Jane (Kristen Vaughan), an anthropologist; and their neighbors Colin (David Ian Lee), a journalist and his wife Sheila (Heather E. Cunningham), a one-time nurse. Set in 1968 in London, the play is infused with a sense of the political correctness of the time (which perhaps isn’t really all that different from today’s): the liberal establishment knows what is best for the lower socio-economic classes, notwithstanding what the lower classes might think is best for themselves (in Benefactors the issue is housing but think “Obamacare” today.)

The four characters appear to have two things in common, at least at the outset of the play. One is the need to seek gratification through the abstract contemplation or management of other people’s lives, rather than in living their own. Thus David evidences considerably more concern for the denizens of Basuto Road and for Colin and Sheila than he does for his own family. Jane views the world as an anthropological project, devoting herself to the market research aspects of David’s architectural scheme. Colin is a journalist, reporting on the lives of others while failing to come to grips with his own. And Sheila has so little regard for her own life, as opposed to that of others, that she chooses to relieve Jane of her household chores rather that fulfill her own familial obligations.

The second is their basic contrariness or need to define themselves only in opposition to others. As Jane describes it early on, if David favors something, she instinctively opposes it. But then if David favors something, Colin instinctively opposes it too, so Jane must then oppose Colin which aligns her with David after all. These automatic negative predispositions define the characters as well.

In the course of the play, all four characters change in different directions and it is that evolutionary development that provides the play with its intellectual and emotional depth. David, who truly does care about the plight of the denizens of Basuto Road, nonetheless comes to the conclusion, in regard to his architectural scheme, that “In the end, it’s not art, it’s mathematics.” His approach to life, while superficially remaining empathetic, becomes increasingly cold and analytical and, ultimately, the term “progressive collapse,” initially intended to describe an architectural problem of the sort that culminated in the tragedy at the World Trade Center, comes to describe his life.

Jane, the analytical outsider, becomes emotionally (not just abstractly) involved in the lives of those on Basuto Road and her allegiance may (or may not) shift from David to Colin. But is this truly an example of her psychological growth or just evidence of her continuing contrariness?

Colin, the ultimate outsider, clearly angry, probably jealous of David, and possibly mentally unhinged or just downright evil, stops reporting the news and begins to make it, first as a squatter attempting to block David’s project and then as an unsuccessful candidate for Parliament. But his motivations too are unclear: has he become truly concerned for the plight of the residents of Basuto Road or are his petty jealousies and animosity toward David continuing to drive him?

For her part, Sheila evolves from being a timid, subservient, needy, dependent housewife, barely able to cope with the limited responsibilities of picking her children up from school and preparing meals for her family, to becoming David’s secretary and confidante and, eventually, to freeing herself completely from Colin’s dominance and embarking on a course of therapy destined to make her whole again. But is that really what is happening to her or is she simply about to repeat her self-destructive attachment to another couple? That is what she did with one couple before meeting David and Jane; that is what she then did by falling in love with Jane (albeit not necessarily in a sexual sense) and then transferring her love to David; and it is possible that that is all she is doing now with her therapist and her therapist’s husband.

Both Semler and Lee play their roles well but the highest praise must be reserved for the two female actors. Vaughan is terrific, expressing a range of inner emotions within a tightly controlled exterior that one could only expect from a true professional. And Cunningham, who is also the company’s Producing Artistic Director, is simply phenomenal. She portrays Sheila with a depth and intensity that is absolutely breathtaking.

The Lighting Designer for most productions is often overlooked and I should like to make sure that such an oversight does not occur here. In that capacity, Justin Sturges has done an outstanding job with this production and has contributed considerably to its success.

Indeed, my only disappointment with the production was with the set design which I found to be pedestrian at best. This was surprising since the Set Designers, Jack and Rebecca Cunningham, are justifiably highly regarded in the field. To be generous, I’d assume that it was only the space limitations of the small Spoon Theater and/or the financial limitations of Retro Productions which thwarted their ambitions but, even so, I should have expected better of them.

That, however, is a very minor complaint. Overall, this is a marvelous production and I’d urge you to see it.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Broadway: Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

For a while it appeared as if Lincoln Center’s production of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, now playing at the at the Belasco Theatre, was itself on the verge of breakdown, what with preview performances having twice been postponed to allow for additional rehearsal time to iron out kinks in the show’s sets and musical numbers. But having seen one of the show’s last preview performances just a few days before official opening night, I think that I can fairly state that whatever problems may have existed appear to have been resolved and that the show now not only is not on the verge of breakdown but, rather, is on the verge of a successful Broadway run.

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is a musical based on the film of the same name by Pedro Almodovar which was first shown to wide acclaim at the New York Film Festival in 1988, being nominated for an Academy Award as Best Foreign Film of the Year. The musical sticks closely to the plot of the film, exploring the relationships among several women and their partners, once partners, or partners to be. It centers on Pepa (Sherie Rene Scott) who is the mistress of Ivan (Brian Stokes Mitchell) who is married to (albeit separated from) the mentally unbalanced Lucia (Patti LuPone) but who is in the process of abandoning Pepa for Paulina (de’ Adre Aziza) who, incidentally, is the attorney representing Lucia in her divorce action against Ivan. Got all that? Meanwhile, Pepa’s close friend Candela (Laura Benanti) has just discovered that her latest lover is a Shiite terrorist. And Ivan and Lucia’s son Carlos (Justin Guarini) and his uptight fiancĂ©e Marisa (Nikka Graff Lanzarone), in a bout of apartment hunting (largely to escape Luisa), just happen to arrive at Pepa’s home.

If you think that this has all the makings of a French farce, you’re absolutely right – and you still don’t even know the half of it. Throw in an unplanned pregnancy, an aborted suicide attempt by Candela, telephones ripped from the walls, the attempted murder of almost everyone by means of Valium-spiked gazpacho, Marisa’s loss of her virginity at the hands of a telephone repairman, a passionate interlude between Carlos and Candela, two inept cops, a motorcyclist and his angry girlfriend, a profoundly comic taxi driver (Danny Burstein), and Luisa’s thwarted attempt to kill Ivan and you’ll get an even better idea of what this zany production is all about.

Now add to the mix a terrific set incorporating a taxi and motorcycle, gymnasts’ rope swings and first rate pyrotechnics, as well as several top flight actors and singers and you have all the ingredients for a wonderful evening’s entertainment. In particular, Benanti comes close to stealing the show as Candela and Mitchell is absolutely superb as Ivan, but Scott, LuPone, and Burstein surely deserve praise for their performances as well.

That is not to say that this is a perfect production. LuPone is certainly capable of playing a bigger role than that afforded her in this show and one may only speculate on why she agreed to play the secondary role offered her here. Indeed, when she belts out the number “Invisible” in the second act, one can only regret that she wasn’t given more opportunities to display her extraordinary talent.

So far as the music goes, this is certainly no South Pacific nor West Side Story and, while some of the tunes are catchy, others are rather pedestrian. And as for the lyrics, they are reminiscent of the “little girl who had a little curl right in the middle of her forehead.” When they are good, as in Mitchell’s nearly show stopping number “Yesterday, Tomorrow and Today,” they are very, very good indeed, but when they are bad, they are truly horrid: what can say about lines such as "Madrid is my mama. Give me the nipple every day and I will taste it" and Mama Madrid might "push me out [but] I'll just crawl back up" other than that they simply make one cringe.

But these are small shortcomings in an otherwise highly pleasurable production. And who knows? If the cast and crew keeps working at improving this production, perhaps they’ll iron them out in time as well.