Theater archives

Marian, Music, Morality


The world has caught up with Harry Kondoleon in the eight years since his tragically early death. What once looked gnomic, tricky, prickly, now seems reasonable, a depiction of a place we’ve come to know. Harry was simply ahead of the game, not trying willfully to startle, but mapping a world in which we would duly arrive. Thanks in large part to Craig Lucas’s efforts, Kondoleon’s previously unperformed plays are coming to meet us just as we get there. This second of Lucas’s directorial outings, tackling a late work that has more in common with traditional playwriting than some of the author’s earlier experiments, is like the answer to a particularly maddening quiz question. You may think you knew it all along, but don’t kid yourself; you wouldn’t have gotten the answer without peeking at Harry’s paper.

“Don’t kid yourself” is, in a sense, the moral of Kondoleon’s comedy too. The characters of Play Yourself are an elderly ex-movie star who is not really a star, her devoted daughter who is not really devoted, a passionate fan who is not really either passionate or a fan, and a charismatic religious leader who is not really just a nice guy with a sentimental streak. This sounds like the setup for a wicked satire on hypocrisy, but, for a final rug-pull, the play itself is not really the harsh object, satiric or tragic, that it sometimes toys with being. The characters are all genuinely good souls—or, at least, good enough to admit how horrid they are—while the ending is both happy and moral, with all of them getting to a large extent what they want, as well as what they deserve. Kondoleon couldn’t have done it more neatly if he were Kaufman and Hart, or more elegantly if he were Marivaux.

Jean, the ex-movie queen, has spent her career playing Other Women who get dumped by the hero in the last reel—on-screen in a brief string of B movies, and offscreen to boot. The work’s imperative title is what Jean was told when she arrived in Hollywood, wholly innocent of the stormy emotions for which the studio system decided she had a natural flair. The many different meanings bound up in the word yourself—what you think you are, how others see you, what you feel, what you wish to be, what the objective lens records, what your actions make you—are all tried on by the characters, turning the action into a sort of Gestalt fashion parade, with Jean, inevitably the most clothes-conscious, as its supermodel, the last word in psychological chic.

The anarchic condition of our media-haunted life, with its innumerable choices and kinds of choice, is layered teasingly into the rich dialogue. Jean may be a forgotten nobody, and her films trite, “self-erasing” mediocrities, but their dialogue has etched itself into the characters’ consciousness. Sooner or later everyone slips into some key scene from Jean’s filmography; she and her daughter Yvonne, having lived together for years in a conflicted state of parasitic symbiosis, slide back and forth from film script to life script as casually as they breathe. And Kondoleon slyly makes sure we’re always aware that their slide occurs within a stage script. There’s even a fourth dramatic form—the text of a gay male solo performance, as it were—buried within this “women’s picture” (in 1930s Hollywood parlance) of a play: Jean and Yvonne get letters from Bobby, a friend traveling in Europe, whose epistles both set the onstage plot in motion and underscore its moral. Like the onstage characters, Bobby both finds happiness and gets what he deserves. In his case, the combination is marked with deeper pain, because he doesn’t know a good thing when he sees it.

Lucas’s production toys, astutely and friskily, with the script’s multileveled capriciousness. John McDermott’s rabbit warren of a set makes the women’s apartment look stripped down for camera movement; you can never quite tell who’s visible to whom. Ben Stanton’s lighting features movie-style klieg lights that sneak up for the screenplay quotes; Catherine Zuber’s costumes sway across the tenuous line between clothes you choose and clothes designed for you. David Van Tieghem’s discreet flecks of film music include the sliest switch of all: Ruth Etting’s recording of the title song from Jean’s first picture, played in the auditorium during intermission.

Lucas’s cast handily matches his production team’s skills. To dispose briefly of its one minor flaw, Juan Carlos Hernandez, likable and lucid as the religious visitant, doesn’t quite have the magnetism the script suggests. Everything else about the performance either verges on or attains the purely magical. Elizabeth Marvel, normally seen in roles of tragic power, manages to sustain her innate grandeur inside the shrunken carapace of unhappy Yvonne, like a complete Bible tucked into a walnut shell. A different magic, comic and dazzling, is practiced by Ann Guilbert, whom you might call screwball comedy’s answer to Anne Pitoniak—not without Pitoniak’s technical power, either, as Guilbert proves when, late in the play, she pulls off the impossible task of imitating the inimitable Marian Seldes.

This naturally doesn’t faze Seldes, who, playing Jean, knows exactly how to deal with competition: She renders homage, generously, and then simply makes herself inimitable all over again. Seldes is so plainly the principal attraction of this happy event that I’ve deliberately kept her out of my review till now, knowing full well that nobody would trust me on the subject of Play Yourself unless I could cite all its other virtues as well. It wasn’t easy, since the notes scribbled across my program record almost nothing but Seldes’s gestures, Seldes’s reactions, Seldes’s inflections, and innumerable other matters Marianic. But what can I do? As a colleague said to me the year Marian served on the Obie committee, “We are all in love with Marian Seldes.” And with such complete success there can be no arguing.

So I’ll change the subject and tell you a story. Many years ago, in an exotic, incomprehensible land called Broadway, a mistake was made. A work that saw the world wholly through Japanese eyes was produced as if it were a piece of Western theater. The result, not surprisingly, was that, despite its many beauties and the great care lavished on it, the work looked peculiar, over-explanatory, slightly stilted and distant. It did not last long. Then one day, the forlorn lost work found its way home to Japan, and its rescuers did the most surprising thing of all: They brought it back to Broadway, and installed it in a giant temple of culture, not many blocks north of where it had begun. Only now it looked different: The effort of journeying had given it a lean, tough quality; the changing years had made it harsh and even crude in spots. And in its happiness, it sometimes made raucous noises as it kicked up its heels. But it fit so comfortably in its newfound context that everybody was happy.

That’s the story of the New National Theatre of Tokyo’s production of Pacific Overtures, as staged by Amon Miyamoto, seen here for a pitiably brief week as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. The rejoicing doesn’t come from its being so much better than Hal Prince’s original production, but from the unforced ease that a work displays when placed in its natural context. The sets and costumes are not more beautiful than Boris Aronson’s and Florence Klotz’s—virtually nothing more sumptuous than their work on the show has ever slid across my retinas—but Rumi Matsumi’s starker sets and Emi Wada’s less ornately patterned costumes seemed built out of a whole culture’s visual sense, not designed with a distancing specialness born of research. The spontaneity they released more than made up for any loss in exceptional quality.

The same was true of the acting and singing, which, if sometimes broader than Broadway, were able to flow—just what the Kanagawa madam tells her girls to do!—smoothly between the most ancient Japanese stage conventions and the most contemporary Tokyo behavior. It was infectiously alive at every point. Most gratifyingly, Miyamoto’s smart, speedy staging didn’t engage in any fancy acts of reinterpretation, because, as he clearly saw, it didn’t need to. His only big surprise was to fill in, sensibly, an omission that had annoyed me along with a good many other people when the work premiered in 1976: In “Next,” the final number, he acknowledged the existence of World War II and Hiroshima, matters which the original had left fastidiously unmentioned. (I suppose you could say they were adumbrated, abstractly, in Sondheim’s lyric.) There was even a hint of 9-11. This lack of squeamishness, so refreshingly different from Broadway’s customary caution, underscored again the work’s essential Japanese quality; it doesn’t belong in a culture based on feigning, to which corporate Broadway subscribes as surely as do Bush and Cheney, Enron and Halliburton. Japan has corporations too, of course, but they apparently haven’t gotten to Miyamoto’s sensibility yet. His Pacific Overtures is heading to Washington, where I highly recommend it—to Democrats.

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