Thursday, February 12, 2009

Intermisson Talk: American Plan, Hedda Gabler and another Speed-the-Plow

by Tony Vellela

There can be a kind of show-offy self-indulgence in reviewing, and the practice often suffers from a multiplier effect when applied to revivals. The current production of Richard Greenberg's 1990 drama The American Plan has generated a good deal of that, cataloguing 'insightful' references to possible influences, with Henry James [his novel Washington Square, later dramatized and then filmed as The Heiress], and the William Inge gem Picnic the leading victims. If I were to indulge in this shameless exercise, I would lean to certain elements of Tennessee Williams' Suddenly, Last Summer, and Elizabeth Spencer's 1959 novella The Light in the Piazza, which was rather charmingly borrowed four seasons back by Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas, to create the similarly-titled musical. But I won't.

And attempts to contrast and compare this work with other Greenberg efforts can also prove hazardous, because they are themselves too thin in their demonstration of craft to warrant much notice.

The American Plan, now at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, by the considerable and recurring largesse of the Manhattan Theatre Club, should be appraised as a free-stander. And it owes its ability to remain upright at all to the talents of five accomplished actors, and the hand of director David Grindley, whose acumen was previously evident in the recent revivals of Pygmalion and Journey's End. His talents are more needed here.

Lily Rabe, Brenda Pressley, Kieran Campion and Mercedes Ruehl - photo by Carol Rosegg

This play is an unconvincing admixture of human nature melodrama and thriller sans actual corpse. Set in 1960 at a Catskills summer resort, winsome Sarah Lawrence co-ed Lili Adler [Lily Rabe], reposing on the dock of her mother's lake house, welcomes being surprised by a blond charmer who hoists himself up out of the water, and into her fantasy of being rescued from the clutches of said mother. That matriarch, a Holocaust survivor, did not lose her sharp tongue en route to the U.S. Like the other four principals, however, she speaks lines that sound like they have been written down, reworked and rehearsed before spoken to others, and even then, they have the lilt of fourth-wall busters, to be accompanied by a wink to the front row. Anyway - Lili spins fantastic tales of oppression and dominance, and the swimmer savior Nick [Kieran Campion, an Eric McCormack look-alike, but with actual range and depth] eagerly plays the role of Prince Charming. When the Wicked Witch-mama Eva arrives [Mercedes Ruehl], the mother-versus-daughter dance keeps changing tempos, but Lili seems to stay one step ahead of her mother's manipulations of the hero, including a seeming ability to convince him that she is not, in fact as mother says, mentally ill.

Will Lili actually inherit a fortune when she turns twenty-one? Is Nick really willing to 86 his current intended in favor of Lili, and for romantic reasons only? Did Eva really poison her husband after he invented some plastic thing that made them wildly rich? Did the boyishly handsome Gil, [the boyishly handsome Austin Lysy], who arrives and raises everyone's eyebrows, (for different reasons), show up quite by accident? How will these mid-century golden-age-in-America lives be affected by society's four decade-long culture clash that will kick in five years hence? While some of the answers will easily be guessed, and others are never answered, the real question is whether they are worth asking at all. Because what is missing here is a sufficient quotient of concern on our part to learn the answers. Gil claims to work at a small publishing house that is seeking 'the suburban novel that blows the lid off.' Well, he is not likely to find the makings of it in "The American Plan." An admirable amount of curiosity, and at times even fascination, is generated for these folks, but that is the product of skillful acting choices, and while it appears that the ladies account for the larger share of it, this is in part due to the rather less developed nature of how the two male roles have been written; they share a secret but not too much of a pulse. Ruehl rules most of her scenes, just because she knows better than most women actors how to quietly stalk prey. Eartha Kitt did it with music. And the talented Ms. Rabe possesses that certain quality that defies definition, also possessed by Lauren Ambrose and Drew Barrymore - a kind of watchability, something that draws your eye to their work, despite who they are portraying or what their character is saying or doing. It is not a 'style,' or a 'method,' but rather a kind of inherent sincerity. Any of them would juice the living daylights out of the role of Sebastian Venable's wayward cousin. [With a Mercedes Violet???]

Another revival ["August: Osage County" keeps looking better and better] attracting attention for many of the wrong reasons is the Roundabout Theatre Company's production of Henrik Ibsen's "Hedda Gabler," with Mary-Louise Parker as the desperate housewife of long ago. In the past few years, Kate Burton and Cate Blanchett have also taken up residence along the Norwegian coast. Taken together, a sort of Goldilocks and the Three Bears picture emerges: Cate = too hot; Mary-Louise = too cold; Kate = just right.

Hedda, it is often overlooked, is not a creature of extremes all the time. She believes she is often driven to them. As the beautiful, coddled daughter of a military icon, she has inherited the colonel's collection of guns, and a keen ability to use them. They are her only recreational non-human refuge. Like other Ibsen women, Hedda has more of a personal fulfillment need than her society permits. Her solution is to seek out a man to replace her dad, and attach herself to his star, and the more she can help it rise, the better. This is the residue of being born the daughter of a star, a phenomenon familiar today to the readers of tabloids. [Could it be that Ms. Burton understood perfectly, if even unconsciously, how that works, and how one in real life liberates herself from it?] When an ill-conceived marriage to the provincial erstwhile professor Jorgen Tesman proves more suffocating than fulfilling, she tries to regain entry into the life of a past suitor, the now-heralded author Ejlert Lovborg, a rival for her husband's university chair appointment. Hedda and hubby return from a very lengthy honeymoon abroad, which also serves as a research trip for him to gather information on his specialty, the crafts of Belgium and Holland. They move into the grand mansion she told him she has always coveted. Like much of what she spouts, it is a lie born out of the frustration of the moment it is pitched.

Her obsession with making her own mark leads her to the only creative act she believes open to her - to destroy someone - and since she no longer sees her boring husband as worth even that much attention, she fixates on Eijert, and his newly-minted, heralded manuscript. Her plan gathers momentum when she learns that Thea, a former schoolmate, the object of merciless torment by Hedda the bratty teen, supplied the vital assistance and inspiration for Eijert's 'creation.' The unattainable licentious designs of the elderly Judge Brack, a contemporary of her father, provide the only hint of clever release for Hedda, in the form of banter. And although she is responsible for Eijert's demise, she cannot kill his work.. Her husband and her girlhood nemesis join forces to reconstitute Eijert's manuscript, after she has decided that burning it would give her the satisfaction she craves.

Good story, even more than a century after it was written. But this "too cold" Hedda, along with most of her comrades, drifts from scene to scene like zombies wading through loose aspic, drained of all emotion. And it's no good claiming that this is a society of restraint: these people are observed in private, not public spaces. Only Michael Cerveris as Jorgen, and Lois Markle, as the Tesmans' maid, rise about this airless pallor, and seem to fight against some [director Ian Rickson's? adaptor Christopher Shinn's?] vision of trying to present a provocative re-imagining of this classic. Ibsen's text shows Hedda as a young woman conflicted about parent-child relationships - Hedda's repulsion at being asked to address Tesman's beloved aunts, who raised him as surrogate mothers, in a personal way; her lack of interest in becoming a mother herself; her anthropomorphizing of Eijert's manuscript that she burns. She is a daughter in terror-driven flight from the shadow of her father. Not for no reason did Ibsen title this work "Hedda Gabler," and not "Hedda Tesman." Hedda lacks the courage of her father, the military man, and that is all the more painful to her when Eijert finds his muse Thea a woman of courage. Hedda can't rekindle his fascination with her, which rested upon flirtation and her unattainable status. Here, the two engage in a sadly vulgar exercise when they are left alone, she draped around his neck, he with his hand up the front of her dress, all within near earshot of others. As in other scenes, Parker leans her body forward at a ninety-degree angle. No clue why. When the production begins, we are subjected not only to jarring, out-of-period underscoring, but also to a Hedda reclining on a sofa, facing away, her bare buttocks exposed. What follows is equally unsubtle.

Subtle isn't an adjective usually applied to the work of David Mamet, and his "Speed-the-Plow" falls right in line with that characterization. When the revival at the Barrymore opened last October, featuring the ever-nuanced Elisabeth Moss and the bombastic Raul Esparza, the newly-anointed studio honcho was portrayed by Jeremy Piven, who has been inhabiting a nearly-identical character in HBO's "Entourage." When he left under mercury-laced clouds, the role was taken over first by Norbert Leo Butz, and now, William H. Macy. Attribute it to his early and continuing association with Mamet, or his own ability to find truth where it barely lives - Macy makes this gel.

Raul Esparza and William H. Macy in "Speed-the-Plow" photo by Robert Saferstein

The story of a macho opportunist and his sycophant bud, readying their first Big Picture Deal, while batting staccato obscenities off each other, can qualify as stretched sketch comedy material. When a temp secretary comes between them, a few sparks do fly, but they don't ignite much except the same unearned misogyny that took down "Oleanna." However - Macy does manage to mine humanity where Piven did not. And he does it without resorting to tactics that implore us to laugh at this truly conflicted man. Macy may in fact be supplying more real blood to his character than the stage blood he sheds. This is likely to be one of the most successful productions of this slight play.

On Book: If a back-to-basics examination of theatre is needed as an antidote to revival fever, pick up Peter Brook's invaluable "The Empty Space." Whether you agree or disagree with everything he says, this is a work from one of the most thoughtful minds ever to guide the direction of a play.

And if it's a good, solid drama that is called for, read "Hedda Gabler." Almost any translation, brought to life in your imagination, will be better than the mind-numbing version on the boards.

TONY VELLELA, the veteran theatre correspondent for "The Christian Science Monitor," writes and produces the PBS series about theatre, "Character Studies". His work has also appeared in "Parade," "Theatre Week,"" USA Today," "Dramatics," "Rolling Stone," and several other publications.

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