So much theater these days seems intended to make you feel miserable, for no good reason, that to come upon a play from which you emerge with your spirits improved is a kind of glorious shock. Even more startling is the realization that said play is far more than a piece of spun sugar to make you forget this world’s miseries. Au contraire:
On second viewing, Lisa Kron’s Well, now enhanced for Broadway from its 2004 showing at the Public Theater, is a sweet play, but it’s spiked with a hefty spoonful of bitter medicine, which makes the sugar go down both more easily and more rewardingly. Your second dose of it is likely to leave you, as it did me, feeling better and more impressed than your first.
For starts, Well is a play with a keep-you-guessing format, disguised as a piece of performance art that’s constantly being disrupted by a piece of reality that author- performer Kron has ostensibly installed on the set, visible when you enter the theater. The disguise is transparent, for the disruptive element is the author’s mother, and you can see from the playbill that the person you’re watching is not Ann Kron but the actress Jayne Houdyshell—though Houdyshell is so warmly convincing and maternally adorable in the role that at some moments it’s hard to believe the playbill: Surely this is a woman with more experience of mothering than of finding her light at tech rehearsals. Snug in an overstuffed, homey cubicle stage left that ostensibly replicates the Kron household’s family room in Lansing, Michigan, Mrs. Kron, as her spotlit daughter explains to us at the outset, is a chronically unwell person who has managed to “heal a sick neighborhood” but can’t heal herself. The evening, daughter Lisa says, is to be an “exploration” of the themes of wellness and illness, striving to understand why some people get better and others don’t. “This is not a play about my mother and me,” she tells us firmly—an immediate warning that a mother-daughter sparring match is exactly what we should expect.
This expectation, like every other expectation the evening raises, is both fulfilled and confounded. Dramaturgically speaking, Kron must be the wickedest creature alive: She uses her avant-garde tactics to subvert the standard expectations of a play and then uses her playwriting skills to subvert the conventional avant-garde expectations, allying herself with classically disruptive modernists like Pirandello and Thornton Wilder. They pulled the chair out from under Naturalism by pointing out that it was only a stage prop, and the character sitting on it only an actor; Kron retwists their twist by pointing out, in effect, that the stage prop is also a chair and that actors, being people, are also inevitably characters. Her cunning jokes on theatricality get funnier as they pile up, with the biggest laugh saved for the end. The seeming anarchy she creates— Well has some epically anarchic moments—turns out to be elegantly and compassionately planned.
It also turns out, on second hearing, to be richly layered with both ideas and feelings. Building from clusters of images as performance artists do, Kron’s meta- structured play forges links between her various themes, and then between those themes and her aesthetic tactics: The generational conflict of mother and daughter, the racial conflict of changing neighborhoods, the conflicting onstage demands of play and performance piece, all become aspects of one human reality—the way we see ourselves in relation to the world. Kron doesn’t solve any of her problems or promote any panacea. Rather, she learns, and by extension teaches us, how to confront problems practically and enjoyably, using the model of her mother’s ability to turn around a decaying neighborhood as a source of wonder: not a preachy social lesson but a playful celebration of the human paradox. It’s so rare on Broadway, where everything is done in dead earnest for money’s sake, to find a play in which playing is of the essence. Kron and her colleagues have fun, and the fun is infectious (the significant word choice is intentional).
When necessary they can also create, not irrelevantly, a real and devastating sense of anguish. The male roles get rather scanted, but all four of the women onstage in Leigh Silverman’s production have, and seize powerfully, grand emotional opportunities: Christina Kirk as an allergy-ravaged hospital patient; Saidah Arrika Ekulona as both a chronically sick woman and a fiendish little girl; Kron herself, in the most wittily passionate of self-caricatures, as the author whose material is slipping out of her control. (Among the show’s many priceless moments is the one in which the word exploration, used for the dozenth time where any sensible person would say play, turns sour on her lips.) And then there’s Houdyshell. As I’ve indicated above, this isn’t really a “performance,” much as Mt. Everest isn’t really a photograph of snowcapped peaks. Houdyshell is so completely there that I’m halfway tempted to start a rumor that “Jane Houdyshell” is only a pseudonym for Lisa Kron’s mother.