AUTUMN THEATER IN NEW YORK: OFF BROADWAY, THE ACTING’S THE THING
Acting is the main artery through which most of New York Theater travels. When a new season is announced, one looks forward, of course, to the plays. A new play by Nicky Silver? That sounds exciting. Silver, after all, has been putting out the welcome mat for hardened realists for quite a while now and one can’t help but wonder what the targets of his newest work will be. A new play by Adam Rapp? Well, Rapp has been one of our most interesting and prolific new playwrights of the past decade and anything he writes piques one’s interest. A new play by Zoe Kazan? This one is not so easy. But Kazan has been one of our best young actors, and her theatrical lineage is impressive, so one is bound to be curious. But, while we can never be sure about what any new play will yield, there is one thing that New York theatergoers can count on: the actors will come through.
Let us start with the best. The Lyons, the new Nicky Silver play, starts off on a brilliantly hilarious note; and its penultimate scene is so savagely hard-edged, it emits a whiff of cynicism that’s made difficult to accept as anything but the most brutal form of domestic reality. And yet, the evening creates the disturbing effect of being less than successful – because the first half of the second act, in its perfectly natural attempt to explore the Lyons family dynamic, permits Rita, its matriarch, to go away for much too long a while. As played by Linda Lavin – the Duse of Jewish matrons – it is impossible to notice anyone else; seated in a hospital room while her vitriolic husband is dying, Rita leafs through a magazine, looking for designer ideas on how to change the living room once her husband is dead, rolling her eyes and sneering at the incompetence of her alcoholic daughter and her gay son and offering sang-froid as a sharp rebuke to her husband’s bile. One question looms large: Who is the real mean spirit in the group? Lavin’s creation is neither one thing nor another; she projects more shades of grey than any ordinary spectrum could possibly reveal. You can’t possibly like this woman in any conventional way. But just try to take your eyes off her. You never know what she is going to do next, but there is nothing more interesting in The Lyons than waiting to find out just exactly what it might turn out to be.
We don’t really want to hear what her daughter says at an AA meeting, especially when she doesn’t say anything we haven’t heard before. And yet, Kate Jennings Grant is a fine actor who makes her character’s quirks seem perfectly reasonable.
We don’t much care even when the father dies, despite the fact that, before he dies, the estimable Dick Latessa has a field day with the part. We care a little bit about the son’s encounter with a real estate agent that, we discover, he has been stalking, because the scene is pretty neatly written and because the frisson between Michael Esper, as the son, and Gregory Wooddell, as the agent who, it turns out, is also an actor, is filled with tension and terror even as it provides a wicked brand of comedy.
And, though, she doesn’t have enough to do, Brenda Pressley does a withering job as a no-nonsense nurse. The actors are fine. It’s just that Linda Lavin can cut right through everything and everybody and make us care about just one thing: how to get away from all the sturm und drang that infects the rest of the Lyons family. Their stuff has validity, to be sure, but when the curtain comes down, we know exactly where they are headed. When Ms. Lavin walks out on the play and on us, we want to pack our suitcases and go along with her. She may be something of a monster, but she is also a lot of fun. And you can’t predict where fortune will take her. But you’d like at least a glimpse of where she’s going and what she’ll do when she gets there. One moment out of her sight and you want her to come right back. It is quite a relief when she returns to the play after so long a time away from it – even if the vacuum is filled by Silver’s attempts to write a play that is about more than just Rita. It’s not his fault that he got such a wonderful actor to play the part. In her understated way, Linda Lavin is a whirlwind. And Mark Brokaw, the stylish director of this enterprise, wisely lets her run away with the play.
Christine Lahti, as a much more upscale version of Mom, puts her play – Adam Rapp’s Dreams Of Flying Dreams Of Falling – into her pocket as well, with her steady gaze and her way of being so direct that it looks not like bitter triumph over everything, but rather as the only way to handle a sticky situation. I guess that domineering mothers have not lost their traction in the American theater, but, having created a fascinating she-devil, Rapp does not seem to know what to do with her. The play starts off as a familiar but trenchant study of upper-class pretensions, thanks not only to Ms. Lahti, but to the excellent company of actors she is surrounded by (including Reed Birney as her weak husband, Cotter Smith as his potential replacement, Katherine Waterston as her selfish and indifferent daughter, Shane McRae as a suicide with a lust for Ms. Waterston that has hilarious repercussions, and Quincy Tyler Bernstine as a maid who never quite understands the foolish role she is saddled with); however, the play keeps going off in weird and, finally, unconvincing places that defy not only logic but internal credibility. It is what I would call “faux Albee,” a place I never thought Adam Rapp would even think of going. In the past, Rapp seemed to be having great fun picking away at the cretins inhabiting his ventures into unknown territory that bore some striking resemblance to a world we knew existed somewhere. The worst thing about his new play is that there is so little fun in it. Except, of course, when his actors let loose.
Although it doesn’t save the play from its excesses, Rapp does have a way with language, at least. Zoe Kazan writes like an actor. That is to say, her people talk to each other in ways that sound awfully familiar, although a good deal of the time, it’s the way people talk to each other on primetime soap operas. But, out of these shards of familiarity, characters come across in original enough ways to be perfectly actable (Ms. Kazan could play either of the two sisters she has created and possibly the third sister she didn’t write) and, with good actors (again, the strong suit here is the vibrant cast), the play does move along in ways that suggest Ms. Kazan will probably write an interesting play one day. But, as it is, We Live Here is steeped in bourgeois attitudes that seem sadly unfashionable. And the first act ends with a total absence of promise. Then, in the second act, just as we become somewhat compelled by some interesting revelations, the play ends so abruptly that we are, at first, unsure if the play has indeed ended. That this play was produced at all is a bit stupefying, but that its set design should be such a masterpiece of detail is downright curious. Was John Lee Beatty, in creating half of a New England house, full of nooks and crannies in the distance, trying to tell us that every house has its secret corners? Isn’t that what the playwright should have done? But, then again, there are the actors taking up the void. Under Sam Gold’s fluid direction, the family looks like a real family – Amy Irving as the mother, Mark Blum as the father, Betty Gilpin and Jessica Collins as their daughters – and act as if they have been together all their lives. And Jeremy Shamos, as the young man about to marry the headstrong Gilpin, fits into this family perfectly. The most interesting character, Daniel (wonderfully played by an arresting Oscar Isaac), has had relationships with all three sisters, but this fact seems to elude Kazan, who is ultimately less interested in him than in the character Gilpin plays, and, indeed, he disappears from the play just as you imagine he will become its heart. Yes, these people live here – good actors always give the impression that they know exactly where they are – but the question one wants to ask is: Why do they live here? Zoe Kazan has given them all a blueprint and they bring it fully to life, but they have no real reason to be there or to elicit any real interest on our part, except to wonder when we will see these actors again. This is New York. They’ll be back in better plays. And we can say we remember the impression they made in a play not commensurate with their sizable talents.
photos by Carol Rosegg
Vineyard Theatre in NYC
extended through November 20 (final extension)
for tickets, visit http://www.vineyardtheatre.org/show-lyons.html
Dreams Of Flying Dreams Of Falling
photos by Kevin Thomas Garcia
Atlantic Theater Company in NYC
closed on October 30
We Live Here
photos by Joan Marcus
Manhattan Theatre Club
scheduled to end on November 6
for tickets, visit http://www.mtc-nyc.org/