In Annie Baker’s new play Circle Mirror Transformation, at Playwrights Horizons, Lauren, a shy 16-year-old, approaches Marty, the leader of an adult drama class. Lauren has an awkward question: “Are we going to be doing any real acting?” she inquires. “Like acting out a play or something?” “Honestly?” replies Marty. “I don’t think so.”
Don’t believe her. Yes, Marty’s sessions tend more toward Explosion Tag than serious scene study, but that does not trouble the splendid five-member cast—Reed Birney, Tracee Chimo, Peter Friedman, Deirdre O’Connell, and Heidi Schreck. Under Sam Gold’s direction, each offers an affecting, nuanced performance. These amateur dramatics resemble a master class.
Set in the fictional college town of Shirley, Vermont—also the locus of Baker’s previous play, Body Awareness, and the forthcoming The Aliens, at Rattlestick—Circle Mirror Transformation takes place over two summer months. Once a week, Marty (O’Connell) and her four students meet to play word games, do energy exercises, stage childhood reenactments, and lie on their backs, eyes closed, attempting to count aloud to 10. An exasperated Lauren (Chimo) complains, “What’s the point of counting to 10!? I want to know how to become a good actress.” “This is how you become a good actress,” says Marty.
Again, I’m not certain I trust her—those childhood reenactments seem psychically perilous, and I doubt a performance has ever benefited from a trust walk. But the form of the class allows Baker remarkable access to her characters. Each exercise—even Explosion Tag—is an opportunity for emotional revelation, which each actor embraces. When Schultz (Birney) is “it,” his explosion—self-contained and nearly silent—exposes his anxieties. In another exercise, James (Friedman) and Theresa (Schreck) speak using only the words “ak-mak” and “goulash.” Nevertheless, their dialogue reverberates with seduction and sorrow.
As in Body Awareness, Baker treats her characters with compassion, almost to excess. The play’s final scene is devastatingly gentle. I wish Baker wouldn’t so quickly truncate awkward moments or curtail confrontations, yet it’s this kindness, combined with a psychological acuity, that lend her plays their distinct voice. Despite Marty’s claims, there’s real acting afoot at the Shirley Community Center—and real playwriting, too.
The Scene Mountain State?