Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
Nick Payne’s Constellations, (on Broadway in 2015), poetically explored The String Theory of Quantum Physics: In layman’s terms, what happens to everything else when a single aspect of a scenario changes and is it happening simultaneously on another plane? The play’s program specified “Place: The Multiverse” = the juncture? of multiple universes. Still fascinated with questions of free will, time, memory, and the way we function, the prolific playwright/intellectual here takes the human brain as its subject. One again drama is the medium.
Four excellent actors: Geveva Carr, Charlie Cox, Heather Lind, and Morgan Spector play a multitude of characters including psychologists, scientists, patients, a lawyer, a journalist…with turn-on-a-dime American and British accents. The piece, like its predecessor, is episodic, here broken into three larger chapters: ENCODING, STORING, and RETRIEVING, each begun with robotic voguing (by Peter Pucci) and a walk around the circular staging area accompanied by spacey electronic sounds/music. (David Van Tieghem) It’s a kind of a human rondo.
Morgan Spector, Geneva Carr
Identifiable stories play through in fragments. When Albert Einstein died, Princeton pathologist Thomas Harvey, conducting his autopsy (Morgan Spector), had a carpe diem moment and, turning to the icon’s executor, asked whether he might take the brain…which ends up in the trunk of his car before being dissected and studied…to little avail.
Martha (Geneva Carr, whose natural stage presence allows her to morph with focus), the adopted granddaughter of Einstein’s son and a clinical neuropsychologist, is approached by self-serving journalist, Michael (Charlie Cox) with questions of her paternity. Might she, in fact, be Einstein’s illicit daughter? (Not so far-fetched based on evidence.) All she has to do is take a DNA sample from Einstein’s brain to find out. That is, when Michael tracks it down.
Heather Lind, Geneva Carr
The intrepid headline hound convinces Doctor Harvey to accompany him cross country with a piece of the brain in order to see Einstein’s daughter –no love lost there – Evelyn (Carr), and request that sample. They drive. (How is one to airline check a brain fragment?)
Martha is, for the first time, exploring a gay relationship with Patricia (Heather Lind with a butch persona), also an adopted child, who would like her to help a lawyer friend (Spector) with professional testimony in a murder trial.
Anthony (a credibly on-the-verge Spector) is in and out of therapy (including with a compassionate but helpless Martha) and on Dagwood combinations of medication… rendering him impotent. About to embark on his honeymoon, he stops his meds, is fine for several days, then strangles his new bride to death, remembering nothing.
Heather Lind, Charlie Cox
Henry’s (a wonderfully innocent and touching Charlie Cox) amnesiac brain is poorly wired, though whether before or after an operation is unclear. His attention span is three to four thoughts, then everything starts fresh. The patient’s fiancé Margaret (Heather Lind) tries patiently (and palpably) to help, especially wanting him to regain his music, but gives up in despair. Doctors change over time…until Martha appears, triggering a moment of clarity/progress or, perhaps, just in the right place at the right time.
I’m sure I’ve left people and connections out. All four actors are top notch, but this is an impressionistic piece. Emotions are felt only in passing except perhaps those provoked by Henry who appears throughout. The mechanism we call brain retains its secrets.
Director Doug Hughes brings what humanity he can to the passing parade, keeps things moving and characters from becoming static.
Ben Stanton’s Lighting, Scott Pask’s minimal Set and Catherine Zuber’s grey-tone costumes collectively create an ephemeral canvas.
Photos by Joan Marcus Opening: Geneva Carr (back), Morgan Spector, Heather Lind, Charlie Cox
Manhattan Theatre Club presents Incognito by Nick Payne Directed by Doug Hughes City Center Stage 1 151 West 55th Street Through July 10, 2016
Already broadly celebrated in Paris and London, Florian Zeller’s 2012 “tragic Farce” (the playwright’s term) places us squarely in a mind suffering from advanced dementia. That’s an oxymoron. One cannot be squarely inside anything whose parameters are frighteningly mercurial. Intimates are unfamiliar, geography morphs beneath one’s feet, time shifts back and forth, oblivious and cruel. Yet we are there, wherever there is, almost as surely as Zeller’s protagonist, André, The Father (Frank Langella).
An elegant, upper middle class Frenchman who was probably never likeable, André fights the onset of this disease with a long unassailable ego and every ounce of his considerable strength and intelligence. It’s as if Prospero (The Tempest) took on the typhoon called forth by his errant brain. We watch as self-sacrificing daughter, Anne (Kathryn Erbe) futilely tries to get him at-home help who can withstand his anger, confusion, and indignant denial.
The play is a succession of scenes divided by blackouts with painful, flashing, proscenium lights – brain synapses? At first, we’re in André’s tasteful, bourgeois apartment shortly after his latest caregiver has fled in tears. He tells Anne that, among other failings, the woman stole his watch – André’s compass and an ongoing concern throughout. When it’s found in a cupboard behind the microwave where he stashes valuables, her obstinate father declares the only reason it wasn’t purloined is that he hid it. Why is Anne so unsympathetic, he demands, why is she not like the younger daughter he prefers?!
Brian Avers, Frank Langella
Every time the lights go off and on, time and place alter unsequentially. In the first vignette, Anne, who is divorced from Antoine (Charles Borland), says she’s moving to London to be with her lover, Pierre (Brian Avers) and must find a solution to her father’s inability to care for himself. In the next, André is living with Anne and a resentful Pierre to whom she seems to be married; then Antoine appears as her spouse. Both men seem to be current, both are not at first recognized. One of them repeatedly slaps the 80 year-old which is viscerally shocking. André regresses to a whimpering child.
One moment Anne appears to be a completely different woman, a blonde (Kathleen McNenny). In the next, she is ‘herself.’ A newly hired aide, Laura (Hannah Cabell), looks just like André’s absent daughter, who, spoiler alert, turns out to be long dead. The actor who plays Antoine shows up as a doctor; the blonde as his nurse.
Kathryn Erbe, Frank Langella
André is convinced Anne wants his apartment and will put him in a home. In his shaken mind, faces become interchangeable. Unmoored, he remembers only the last scene from which he tries to regain his bearings. We ricochet in time like a character out of a Kurt Vonnegut novel. The only consecutive aspect of the piece is increased incapacity, every incremental change palpably experienced. Charm turns to cruelty, paranoia, panic.
Frank Langella, Hannah Cabell
Keep your eyes on Scott Pask’s excellent Set. Each time the lights come up, things have changed. Artwork, photographs, books, and furniture disappear and return. To say this compounds the disorienting narrative is to minimize its effect. Between Mr. Langella’s inhabitation of this larger than life personality, Donald Holder’s disturbing Lighting Design, Fitz Patton’s evocative Music and Sound, and the map-less script, you may want to pack Dramamine.
Florian Zeller and translator Christopher Hampton have crafted an immensely affecting, immersive play in which we find ourselves sharing, rather than observing the protagonist’s experience.
Frank Langella is simply brilliant. Whatever affectation you may have attributed to the actor during the mid portion of his long career, has, these last years, been jettisoned for newfound authenticity. The portrayal is wrenching; mercurial adjustments in an effort to appear more grounded completely credible. Rather than indulging in an appeal for sympathy, Langella plays André with callous rancor, a man whose formidable pride and then actual self is violently stripped away by an unseen hand.
As Anne, Kathryn Erbe is believably strong, exhausted, frustrated and devoted.
Director Doug Hughes has done a masterful job. The result- powerful, nuanced, clarity of acting in an environment of utter obscurity.
Photos by Joan Marcus Opening: Frank Langella, Kathryn Erbe
Manhattan Theatre Club presents The Father by Florian Zeller Translated by Christopher Hampton Directed by Doug Hughes Samuel J. Friedman Theater 261 West 47th Street
When Arena Stage’s Artistic Director Molly Smith saw Anthony Giardina’s The City of Conversation at Lincoln Center, she was eager to have it produced in the nation’s capital. And why not? Washington is the city where these conversations once occurred in the homes of D.C.’s hostesses (think Susan Alsop and Kay Graham) who played a pivotal role in bringing together opposing sides at elegant parties. Back then, after-dinner arguments may have become heated, but the rivals continued to break bread together, even stayed friends. When the play premiered in New York, in June, 2014, Donald Trump’s candidacy was a year away. In the current campaign climate, one can’t imagine Trump, or any of his opponents, remaining civil while sharing a meal. This old social order did exist at one time, however, and our country was the better for it.
Michael Simpson and Margaret Colin
The play opens in the fall of 1979 and is set in the Georgetown townhouse of liberal-leaning Hester Ferris (Margaret Colin). This evening Hester’s guests are Kentucky Senator George Mallonnee (Todd Scofield), and his wife, Carolyn (Jjana Valentiner). On Hester’s agenda are two items: the passage of a Ted Kennedy sponsored bill that would help the Massachusetts senator’s presidential bid, and the career advancement of her live-in lover, Chandler Harris (Tom Wiggin).
Hester’s widowed sister, Jean Swift (Ann McDonough, in an excellent performance) supports her sibling’s causes and helps plan the get togethers, while never attending herself. Throughout the play, Jean serves as a reality check for Hester, often delivering advice and warnings in droll one-liners that never fail to produce laughs.
Hester’s son, Colin (Michael Simpson), arrives home from abroad earlier than expected. Hester is thrilled, not only to see him, but also with the prospect of presenting a united familial front to woo the reluctant senator over to her side. Her plans are dashed, however, when she witnesses her son’s turn to the dark side, egged on by his girlfriend, Anna Fitzgerald (Caroline Hewitt). The two have just graduated from the London School of Economics, and Colin has returned a changed man, rejecting liberal opinions once embraced. Anna dispenses with any social niceties and plunges right in, criticizing everything Hester stands for and Colin once believed in. For her part, Hester looks with distain at Anna’s disheveled appearance and offers to lend her a black cocktail dress for the evening’s festivities. Anna accepts the dress, but not the idea that she should tone down her behavior. Joining the men for brandy and cigars and espousing her conservative views, she soon has the senator and his wife eating out of her hand – not what Hester had hoped for. What really stings, though, is Colin’s strident rejection of his mother’s ideals in front of the senator.
Margaret Colin and Tyler Smallwood
We flash forward for Act Two, finding ourselves smack in the middle of the Reagan years. Hester is now babysitting for her grandson, Ethan (Tyler Smallwood), who playfully bounces a rubber ball around the living room and asks to watch Cinderella on video. (There are jokes about using the VCR – remember those?) Hester’s love for her grandson is genuine and heartfelt. And like with Colin, she can’t resist sharing with Ethan her political views, something her son and Anna constantly complain about. This time around, Hester’s out to defeat Robert Bork’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. She and Jean have fashioned a letter that will run as an advertisement in newspapers where senators are still undecided about how they will vote. When Anna arrives to pick up Ethan, Hester scrambles to hide the letter, anticipating her daughter-in-law’s reaction. In contrast to the affection that Hester displays with Ethan, Anna remains all business. She’s left her bohemian look behind in favor of a severe dark blue suit in keeping with her position at the Justice Department, and she can’t seem to get out of business mode to cuddle her son.
Colin’s appearance has changed, too. His youthful bushy hair is now slicked back, Gordon Gekko style and he sports a ridiculous looking mustache. While Anna is supporting Bork’s nomination to the court, Colin is the one who has everything to lose if the effort fails. The New Hampshire senator Colin works for has gone all out to back Bork and could lose his seat. If the nomination is defeated and Hester’s role revealed, her son could lose his job. Anna finds the letter, confronts Hester, and delivers an ultimatum. Where do Hester’s emotions lie? With her son or with her politics? We learn the answers in the last scene, when we are transported to 2008, the evening of Barack Obama’s inauguration.
Caroline Hewitt, Margaret Colin, and Michael Simpson
Giardina has written an intelligent play with smart dialogue. The zingers oftentimes fly so fast it’s hard to keep up. This cast is up for the challenge. Brooklyn-born Margaret Colin is terrific as Hester, showing fierceness when defending her point of view, but warmth when watching over Ethan. Caroline Hewitt taps into Anna’s raw ambition. Because we all know someone like Anna as a fellow student, co-worker, or boss, the performance grates. Unlike with Hester, we never see a softer side to Anna, a hint of what Colin might have seen in her when he fell in love and married her. Michael Simpson’s Colin seems energized at the beginning of the play when he and Anna are a team confronting Hester. Yet by the second act, Colin seems defeated, resigned to his fate, having traded one strong-willed woman for another. He seems exhausted and beaten down, and Simpson allows us to see his despair.
Staging the play in the Fichlander, brings the audience into the action. The production team from Lincoln Center – Director Doug Hughes, Set Designer John Lee Beatty, Costumer Designer Catherine Zuber, and Lighting Designer Tyler Micoleau – have worked their magic here, too.
While The City of Conversation places politics front and center, the play is really about family. We are expected to teach our children values and share our ideas with them, but at some point those children grow up and develop opinions of their own. One can only imagine the dinnertime conversations going on these days, if not in Georgetown townhouses, at tables around the country as young and old make decisions about the upcoming presidential election.
Photos by C. Stanley Photography:
Opening: Tom Wiggin, Margaret Colin, Caroline Hewitt, Todd Scofield, and Jjana Valentiner
The City of Conversation Fichlander Theater Arena Stage 1011 Sixth Street, SW 202-488-3000