Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads is a series of monologues that are essentially first-person narratives in dramatic form. Initially written for television, the series has slowly and steadily increased in number and spread from the small box to the stage. The current version, New York’s first glimpse of the work (in a production imported from Los Angeles), features six pieces in two evenings of three each. In lieu of understudies, the producers offer an entirely different seventh piece, performed by Frances Sternhagen, when one of the six performers is unavailable. (Sternhagen’s piece, not viewed by the press, will replace the one performed by Kathleen Chalfant when the latter leaves for a film commitment.) The notion of Sternhagen, one of America’s most distinguished actresses, as a general standby tells you instantly that something both classy and slightly cockeyed is going on, that the producers are being both lavish and frugal.
This paradox turns out to be an apt reflection of what we see and hear onstage: Though sparing of dramatic depth and power, Bennett is generous with compassion, perception, articulated feeling, and other qualities that have lately been all too obnoxiously absent from English playwriting. Granting his performers only the bare, confined space of soliloquy to work in, he offers them, with the aid of Michael Engler’s spare but subtly gauged direction, a banquet’s worth of acting opportunities. The banquet may be a formal one, with all the proprieties observed—Bennett’s characters occupy a realm where extravagance is frowned upon—but it is a banquet nonetheless, a demure fiesta of acting. How utterly English! one might think—the particular surprise in the matter being that virtually everyone in the cast is American. England’s sole contribution is Lynn, the one Redgrave sibling who can act, a longtime U.S. resident. And all the acting in Talking Heads is very, very good. Knowing Sternhagen, I imagine she’s even better than that.
I will make one quibble in the case of Valerie Mahaffey, though the issue involved is the director’s interpretation, not the performer’s execution of it. The character is a very bimbotic starlet with very large breasts, who lives in the misapprehension that she can achieve stardom through her devotion to the art of acting and her intellectual curiosity. This cartoonish figure is a facile and familiar target of comedy; the piece is the only one of the six that comes close to glibness. Mahaffey, who resembles a perfectly nice adult woman rather than a cartoon bimbo, has been directed to utter the character’s idiocies with such tender, knowing sincerity that the joke almost disappears. I suppose this is better than having it rubbed in our faces, but a modest hint of it might not be inapropos.
For the other five pieces turn out to be, structurally, the same only different. Each of Bennett’s female characters is a sincere, well-brought-up woman who fails to perceive (or selectively omits to tell us) what is actually going on in the situation in which she finds herself. Being neither a prig nor a misogynist, Bennett administers no system of poetic justice: Some of his figures are punished for their misperception, some rewarded, some left where they were. Intriguingly, the one male character—a closeted gay man, a little mentally disturbed, who lives with his mother—is the only one of the six whose perceptions turn out to be accurate, and who receives at the end, if not exactly what he wants, at least the restoration of what he had before the trouble started. For each piece also contains a new element that arrives to spell trouble in the character’s life. A woman is lured by a great bargain, or gets concerned about a new neighbor, or is referred to a new chiropodist, or discovers a store that stays open late, and before you can pronounce “Jack Robinson” in Urdu, we are watching a crisis of character, along with a comparative test of values between the old England and the new. The vicar’s wife overcomes race prejudice, the shopkeeper learns the power of the media, the old-age pensioner discovers social responsibility, and the mama’s boy finds that love can even help the elderly digest cheeseburgers.
Not exactly earth-shattering news, granted, but Bennett’s indirect method allows him to unreel his tiny tales elegantly, with the little surprise details glittering through like bits of metal foil in a magpie’s nest. The silent omissions, like the eggs such a nest encloses, convey the stresses that lie ahead for the characters, making each piece a challenge to the performer: to evoke what’s omitted without crude indicating, and to make his or her evocation different from the others—not so easy when the characters all come roughly from the same walk of life. Though Redgrave gives the most grandly comic performance of the lot, with Chalfant and Daniel Davis dividing honors for the most moving, my hat is particularly raised to Christine Ebersole, as the epistolary old-ager with the troubling neighbors. Her power and clarity, the doughty nobility that makes her chin seem several inches longer than usual, the imperious way she gets all her laughs by brushing past them—this is the year’s best acting lesson. But then, every performance in Talking Heads—and I’m not forgetting Brenda Wehle—is an exemplar, well worth studying or simply enjoying.
Another example that repays study, also a performance in which much goes on between the words, is The Island. Here a heads-up is more important than a review: John Kani and Winston Ntshona, the South African actor-writers who made this piece (in collaboration with Athol Fugard) 30 years ago, announced at the BAM opening-night reception that this would be the piece’s final run. So you have this week only to catch what remains one of the extraordinary performances of our time. Three decades have left their mark: The two men are looser about the middle than the characters, political prisoners on an isolated island, would most likely be. Kani’s distinguished good looks have dwindled to a gaunt mask, while Ntshona’s face has taken on the elfin look of an aged Zen monk. Their voices, too, are grayer, and Kani’s laugh no longer rings like a cathedral chime. None of which much matters: The truths at the heart of the piece are still there; its stark physical life (restored with guidance from Peter Brook) still carries terrifying force. And a country like ours, holding a number of its own citizens in prison with no formal charge against them, no hearing, no trial, no visitors, and no lawyer to plead in their defense, will find much to ponder in the prison-show version of Antigone which is this play’s reason for being. The persistent, appalling news of American soldiers and their allies getting picked off by “friendly” fire in Iraq suggests even wider applications of The Island‘s unspoken moral: This is what happens when a government ceases to care about the people under its rule.
Where The Island raises troubling questions, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg raises, at least in me, only blank puzzlement. I don’t mean to be the critical fraternity’s resident crank on the subject of Peter Nichols’s familiar play; it’s just that I’ve lived through four excellent productions of it, patiently, without ever seeing the point. Bri and Sheila have a spastic child, Josephine, whom they joshingly refer to as Joe Egg (“sitting about all day like Joe Egg” is a British idiom). Bri would like to be rid of the child, and perhaps of all responsibility; a pair of well-meaning friends, and Bri’s considerably less than well-meaning mother, add their two cents’ worth; Bri and Sheila struggle to ease the pain by turning their traumatic history with Josephine into a set of comedy routines. Nothing improves matters and Bri leaves, sneaking out in the usual manner of people who evade responsibility.
In terms of dramatic structure, this is an extremely short story, padded out to make a full evening. Some of Nichols’s padding is amusing in the right hands; other parts, like the intervention of the hearty do-gooder and his squeamish wife, are annoyingly facile no matter how well played. But Nichols never shows us convincingly why we should care enough to spend a long evening with these two unfortunates. Laurence Boswell’s production, imported from London, does well enough by the piece to make me pay attention, if not to care. Eddie Izzard and Victoria Hamilton, playing Bri and Sheila, sometimes go so small in their realism that the performance looks built for that small box in your living room, rather than the stage. In general, Izzard is far too muted; a more outgoing Bri makes the play easier to invest in. Hamilton’s often moving, though, and there are fine performances by Margaret Colin as the do-gooder’s high-strung wife and inimitable Dana Ivey as Bri’s mother. But some plays really aren’t worth a second look, let alone a fourth.