I’m among the invited guests in a Fifth Avenue town house—a real one, not a set designer’s mock-up. A pianist (Jonathan Bell) plays Chopin. Tea and finger sandwiches are proffered. A butler (David McDonald) murmurs that our hostess, Mrs. Hauptmann, wishes us to examine her newly acquired sculpture. We stroll into the music room. On a circular pouf at its center hulks a huge, vaguely phallic mass (by set designer Louisa Thompson and Zane Wilson), suggesting a melted skyscraper made of congealed tar. The phrase “LaBrea Avenue” and the scent of highway repairs both come instantly into my mind.
Peremptory cries from above interrupt my reverie and the Chopin. Upstairs we flock, to a corridor where Alice Hauptmann herself (Zoe Caldwell) greets us individually, showing us into the cozy parlor where we nest on chairs and sofas while she sees to our comfort. (“Are you warm enough? I’m always cold.”) Finally, she seats herself in one corner, opens a script on a music stand before her—”I prefer my spontaneous remarks written out in advance”—and David Adjmi’s brief, quirky monologue, Elective Affinities, at last begins.
Mrs. Hauptmann, we learn, is indeed always cold—in spirit. Her friendly manner and her sweetly soothing, charmingly scatterbrained conversation are all a cover-up. Underneath lies the hard, bitter bedrock of a woman obstinately fixed in one place, resenting her husband (often away on business) and her friends, deriving her basic view of humankind from The Nature Channel, on which you can see wild animals eat each other. Would she torture a terrorist in a “ticking-bomb situation?” Of course she would. It doesn’t mean that she approves of torture; people simply do what’s necessary. She likes the new sculpture, she says, partly because it’s “terrifying.”
Clearly, dear Mrs. Hauptmann is kin to that other dear sanctioner of brutality, Wallace Shawn’s Aunt Dan. But Adjmi’s tiny piece, with its brief pluckings at these now-familiar strings, offers nothing like the complex, loopy structure of Shawn’s Aunt Dan and Lemon, with its contradictory assertions and its stories within stories. Without Caldwell’s adorability, and the canny timing with which she drops her bombshells, the work, emptily decorated with a title borrowed from Goethe, would be no more than a flicker, and its elaborate, site-specific presentation (by a triumvirate of companies, no less—Soho Rep, Rising Phoenix Repertory, and piecebypiece productions) merely a pale stunt. Tea and conversation with Caldwell herself, unscripted, would be a greater privilege.