“We must never forget,” intones an actress in the midst of Opening Night, “this is only a play.” How wrong she is. Any production by the astonishing Flemish director Ivo van Hove is much more than a play—it’s an event. Opening Night—his adaptation of the 1977 John Cassavetes film, presented at BAM—provides not only drama, but also live video, clever design, and several Neil Young albums.
Elsie de Brauw stars as Myrtle Gordon, a Broadway actress of a certain age, muddling through out-of-town tryouts for a play called The Second Woman. She chafes against the script, which seems to condemn older, childless women to a sort of living death. Her attitude worsens after she witnesses the accidental demise of a young fan, Nancy—she improvises new lines, plays hell with the blocking, and attempts to use Nancy’s ghost as an understudy. She pleads with her co-star Maurice, “Let’s take this play. Let’s dump it upside down and see if we can’t find something human in it.”
Cassavetes’s film, with its tender, intimate cinematography, found much that was human in Myrtle’s decline; Van Hove’s play finds just a little less. Above Jan Versweyveld’s set—a coalescence of Broadway theater, rehearsal room, and various bedrooms—hangs a film screen that offers close-ups of the actors’ faces. This distracts from the stage action, rendering the characters overwhelming, almost hieratic. And since the screen also supplies supertitles for this Dutch-language production, it invites constant attention.
Yet even if Opening Night offers less of the theatrical immediacy and intensity of Van Hove’s best works, it continues his fascination with complicated female characters desperate to escape from their assigned roles. De Brauw’s Myrtle is another Blanche, another Hedda, though Cassavetes and Van Hove don’t condemn her to tragedy. Myrtle attempts to sabotage opening night, arriving at the theater so sozzled that her dresser exclaims, “I’ve never seen anybody so drunk and still be able to walk.” Yet, despite her inebriation, she gives a remarkable performance, reconciling herself to the play, to Maurice, to her life. In these final, goofy moments, Van Hove presents much more than a play—he offers us art (and alcohol) as a means of transcendence.