In the midst of Yasmina Reza’s leaden confection A Spanish Play, the character Nuria moans, “We can’t even keep up appearances.” Structured as a play within a play (and a play within that play, too), A Spanish Play ought to be most concerned with “keeping up appearances,” with exploring the rift between actor and character, self and role. But it can’t sustain the weight of its stated concerns, nor transmute them into drama. When a production is authored by a Tony winner and includes such stage luminaries as Larry Pine, Zoe Caldwell, and Denis O’Hare, it is faint praise indeed to remark that its most interesting aspect may be its curtain speech, a lubricious bit of voiceover (perhaps the work of translator David Ives) in which a Latin lover instructs us what to do “in case of fire, and I do not mean the fire in your heart . . .”
From Corneille through Marivaux to Sartre and Anouilh, the French have long displayed a talent for the meta-theatrical. Reza, who divides her time between acting and playwriting, ought to be especially suited to the genre. A Spanish Play concerns a group of actors rehearsing a Spanish play about a romance between an aged divorcée (Caldwell) and her building manager (Pine).
The divorcée’s daughters are both actresses. The younger daughter, Nuria (Katherine Borowitz), is winning Goya awards, while the elder, Aurelia (Linda Emond), is readying an obscure Bulgarian play.
Reza’s prose lies turgid on the page, and director John Turturro hasn’t encouraged his excellent cast to illuminate it. Though scenes in which the actors ostensibly play themselves are videoed and projected live, there’s little other differentiation among the roles. Indeed, the difference of medium aside, each actor seems to play his or her characters very much the same. Perhaps Reza intends a theoretical point—that we can only ever play ourselves—but such a conceit goes largely unexplored. Lacking the philosophical depth of Sartre or the pleasantness of Marivaux or the anxiety and humor of Pirandello (perhaps the foremost master of the meta-theatrical), the play plods along, provoking speculation as to whether the nearly two hours are performed without intermission just so the audience can’t leave. No matter how handsomely Pine preens or how seductively Caldwell utters each syllable, Reza makes Spanish prisoners of us all.