Thursday, March 04, 2010

Intermission Talk for March 3, 2010

by Tony Vellela

It's No "Lie of the Mind"
that "Time Stands Still"

While it may not exactly take a village to present a good play, it does indeed require the creative collaboration of loads of people. That's what you get at the Friedman Theatre, where the Manhattan Theatre Club's production of the new Donald Margulies play "Time Stands Still" marks the gifted playwright's first Broadway exposure. Known for crafting successful off-Broadway works, such as "Dinner With Friends" and "The Model Apartment," Margulies once again pens characters who live with a universal range of human dilemmas, set inside a confined domestic space. And he has director Daniel Sullivan and an insightful cast headed by Laura Linney to thank for enhancing his written text as it springs to life on the boards.

Linney, a world-class war photojournalist, has just returned, scarred but not discouraged, from a brutal assignment in Iraq. She refuses to have her zeal weakened because she needs crutches to get around the airy loft she shares with her lover of nine years, Brian d'Arcy Janes. Her resolve isn't weakened because the left side of her face and body have been torn up by shrapnel when her jeep was bombed. Her lover, a writer, was with her on the assignment. They were separated when he left the field, after witnessing at very very close range another explosion, which ripped apart the faces and brains of young children and women. Traumatic shell-shock resulted in his departure to a safe zone hospital. She chose, on his urging, to stay behind and record the devastation.

Her former boyfriend and still-current editor [Eric Bogosian] comes by, uninvited, just hours after she arrives home, and he brings with him his much much younger new girlfriend, the engaging Alicia Silverstone. Colliding views of what each person wants in the next [and they hope, finally final] stage of their relationship lives emerge, and the deft dialogue-writing and situation manipulation by Margulies keep the play from sliding into predictable patterns.

Here's where this invaluable collaboration comes into 'play.' On the page, Margulies' playwriting shows attention to actor process - he indicates where someone's speech can be interrupted without causing any loss of important information when that speech is cut off. The inconvenient conundrums [conundra?] and critical conflicts each of the principals faces may not be entirely earned, but they have been put out there for the actors and directors to use by a playwright who has a sharp ear for how people, different kinds of people, speak and whisper, shout, question and admonish. Then, these four brilliant actors infuse all of it with some of the best ensemble performances on the boards now. And Dan Sullivan's light-touch [in a good way] direction opens the cast to the type of instant, emotional and physical responses that acting teachers dream of seeing in their scene study sessions. From "The Heidi Chronicles" to "Rabbit Hole," and dozens of others along the way, Sullivan always leaves room for ways that liberate the actors to become the characters. And in Linney and Silverstone, he has ladies who are a pair of firsts among equals. It's no surprise that Laura Linney delivers on every aspect of this woman's despair - even how she masks the pain she constantly bears, because of her lacerations. Her longtime companion suspects and then has it confirmed, that she fell in love with their local guide, who was killed in their jeep bombing. Now, her editor wants to rescue her from becoming another kind of cripple - homebound and separated from taking the images they both believe can alert the world to the injustices and immoralities of man-made and natural disasters. The men are trying to pull her into their versions of her past where their role in her life will be re-established. Instead, Linney pulls out all the pieces of their motives, shoots them full of holes, and lets us share all of the battles.

But it is Alicia Silverstone's nuanced performance that stays with us. Her seemingly vapid and IQ-challenged events planner, with no apparent socially redeeming accomplishments, emerges as someone with far greater instinctual connections to the humanity the others believe they better represent. Far from "Clueless," she reveals a young woman who knows her soul and knows how to bring it into her daily life with no apologies. It's a performance that will likely be rewarded with a nomination, and possibly earn a win, because we expect to laugh at her, and wind up laughing with her. Good stuff.

And a final note about the collaboration thing - after the words end, Linney reminds her now-former lover to take his bike helmet before he cycles out of her life [not in the script], and then Linney the photographer eases her way center stage and points the camera at us as the lights go down. Not in the script, but it stays in our mind, as the spot-on action of someone who believes her mission is to watch, and record others.

Director Ethan Hawke has taken a revered but rather unwieldy script, Sam Shepard's "A Lie of the Mind," and managed to make it manageable - and then some. Judicious cuts, restructuring the action down from three acts to two, and gathering together another world-class ensemble have resulted in one of the most captivating theatrical events of the year.

This is a tuuufff [tough] play. Rough play. A quarter century ago, this piece about two New West families inter-twined by marriage, exploded onto the scene, at the now-closed Promenade Theatre on the Upper West Side, directed by the author. The history between the young, gentle wife Beth [the extraordinary Marin Ireland] and her volatile, unhinged husband Jake [a hot-wired Alessandro Nivola] has been written in bruises and blood - hers. At the moment we meet Jake, he is crying into a pay phone to his brother Frankie [Josh Hamilton], that he has killed Beth.

The Good News is that he did not kill her. The Bad News is that he has caused her severe brain damage - she has been hospitalized, cannot speak at all clearly, and can barely stand up. In terms of gunshot injuries, battered bodies, splintered psyches, endless lies, rampant greed, oblivious cruelties, crude behavior and savage outbursts, it is all downhill from there. Except, miraculously, for Beth, who makes slow, almost imperceptible advances in her various crippling conditions.

Overall, the condition of these people, which also include Beth's parents and brother [Keith Carradine and Laurie Metcalf, and Frank Whaley] , and Jake and Frankie's mother and sister [Karen Young and Maggie Siff], resembles broken, cheap statuary that has been clumsily glued back together, with all the cracks showing. Dysfunctional would be a hundred steps Up. And seen today, Shepard's outlandish, symbols-laden plot lines and justifications lose their shock value less than an hour in, but it's fair to say that Realism/Naturalism has never been his objective. He has become one of the most respected Father/Son Issues playwrights of the last half century, and while "Lie of the Mind' does not initially appear to be headed down that well-traveled road, that's where we are led - you can lead an audience to new intellectual territory, but you can't make them think - so it's back to the old familiar trenches. The spell-binding depictions impress in large measure because of Hawke's fiercely intelligent decisions, keeping the explosive emotional peaks within accessible boundaries for an audience that can become weary from the jagged plot points. His scalpel-precise handling of some very blunt moments prevents laughter at circumstances, places and language that, twenty-five years after being created, have become stereotypical, familiar "types" and situations. A director who has been, for more than two decades, a working, versatile actor, knows what will and will not work.

What also works is the brilliant design work. Jeff Croiter's lighting choices should be required viewing for aspiring lighting designers. And Derek McLane, the New Group's apparent resident set designer, has encased the entire stage in cast-off jumble [as the Brits call it], the detritus of lives unlived - cracked furniture, tavern beer signs, rusty tools, broken toys, joyless lamps. Like their once and future owners, they echo times when life meant seeking and getting things, at the cost of losing the love of others.

Amid all this goings-on - a set of individual stories that collide with each other, an atmosphere that sucks you into a surreal funhouse world, and a display of stellar performances that keep your eyebrows in a permanently raised position - it is, like in the Margulies play, two women who rise above it all. As Beth's mother, Laurie Metcalf assuages her daughter's pain with the instinctive caring of a natural mother, demonstrating that this is an actor who could do almost anything, given the opportunity. Offer her an Ibsen play, someone.

And Marin Ireland's Beth lands like a dart aimed squarely at your forehead. She navigates physical battering, mental dislocation, emotional vandalism and memory loss with the skill of a perfect ten ice dancer on sharpened skates, doing it all on thin ice. Ireland's Beth could rival Helen Keller as a classic hopeless case, rescued in this case by her own internal conviction that love heals all. She's a knockout.

On Book

Sam Shepard's long and controversial writing career included a few notable stops at New York's Public Theatre. For a truly kaleidoscopic series of revelations about that uber-influential institution, indulge yourself with "Free for All: Joe Papp, and the Greatest Theater Story Ever Told." This history/biography, compiled by Kenneth Turan, with Joseph Papp listed as its co-author [a relationship that almost sank the entire years-long process], traces the exhausting, confrontational and inspiring years that gave birth to New York's Shakespeare Festival and the Public Theater. Papp's widow, Gail Merrifield Papp, helped Turan rescue this chronicle that covers everything from church basement productions and free Shakespeare in parks, through battles with urban planner/killer Robert Moses, gliding through the discoveries or showcasing of dozens of talent stars such as George C. Scott and Meryl Streep, milestones "Hair" and "A Chorus Line," and into the era of Tony Kushner, Savion Glover, and Elaine Stritch - a golden legacy made real through the commentaries of more than forty people who were there. This is a story of collaborations - the good, the bad and the endlessly dissected.

Donald Margulies has finally made it to Broadway, with his complex and masterful "Time Stands Still." If you are not yet familiar with his work, pick up copies of any of his plays, but look particularly for "Dinner with Friends," "The Model Apartment," "The Loman Family Picnic" and "Collected Stories." And, look for "Collected Stories" when it receives its Broadway premiere later this season.


TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS series about theatre, 'Character Studies.' His award-winning play "Admissions," which was directed in three separate productions by veteran director Austin Pendleton, is published by Playscripts. His theatre journalism has appeared in dozens of publications, including Dramatics, The Christian Science Monitor, Parade, and Saturday Review. He teaches at HB Studio, and does private coaching.


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