Telling Actions

Not that Ruth's truth, or anything else about her, seems tiny as played by Hagen. What's astonishing is how she makes the woman's largeness of spirit, even her ferocity, with such economy of means. Her Melanie Klein was a dynamo of nervous energy, every jumpy gesture a piece of psychoanalytic evidence; no actress has ever torn up envelopes more rivetingly. Ruth, in contrast, is a watcher and waiter, glaring balefully over gorgon spectacles. Movement and physical business--like the brewing of the tea the two women never drink--is kept to a pro forma minimum. Tucci, creating the role, painted the character in ceaseless strokes of feathery detail; Hagen just is. Instead of looking for gestures that tell you Ruth is Jewish, she simply puts on the glasses and glares, and Hannah Arendt is speaking. Sweeping the needless details out of the way, she gives more weight to the significant ones with which the text is mined--and which give her a steadier approach to the big moments, at which "towering" becomes the only appropriate word. If you're staging Don Giovanni, and want to know what it's like to have a stone statue suddenly show up for dinner, watch the first-act moment in which Ruth discovers that Lisa has tidied up the piles of papers on her desk--the granite gives off flames.

The second act, with Ruth increasingly nettled by Lisa's mushrooming success, is a wildfire of such flames. And just as Hagen's triumphant fury burns the text into clarity, it brings out the blazing best in her acting partner: Simons is revealed as an actress with an incisiveness and a fury of her own. Where Deborah Messing, playing opposite Tucci, seemed to wrap herself nervously in the character's guilts and inner conflicts, Simons fights back. Only tiny facial tremors, in the aftermath of the punched-out lines, hint at her uncertainty, at the dark consequences this traumatic confrontation is bound to have. The ending, colder and more final than in the earlier production, reverberates far more disturbingly. As with Mrs. Klein, the hallmark of Carden's direction is his good sense in leaving well enough alone. Letting his two actresses go for the jugular and toss aside the clutter, he opens the way for what must be the ultimate compliment: As you leave, you hear the audience carrying on the characters' debate--Hagen's performance is so great it makes them talk about the play instead of gushing over her.

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