Tuesday, April 21, 2009
Then there was Impressionism, which marked the first appearance of Jeremy Irons on Broadway in 25 years. The last time around, he won a Tony for his role in Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing. If I simultaneously squint and do the multiplication tables in my head, I can just about see how Irons was fooled into thinking that Mark Jacobs' script had a Stoppardian stamp to it. There is a good deal of structural trickery, the actors speak in mild paradoxes, and Jacobs does attempt to monkey with the art-and-life equation. One problem is that the metaphorical lesson he gleans from the Impressionists--that you have to stand way, way back to see the pretty picture, and that goes double for the emotional picture--is completely banal. The other problem is that there is zero chemistry between Irons and his leading lady, the excellent Joan Allen. And compressing this two-act stinker into a single act doesn't help. (I'm being very negative, aren't I? Bring me my tuna sandwich.)
What snapped this losing streak was an imported British production of Friedrich von Schiller's Mary Stuart. The staging--including a search-and-destroy raid by Elizabethan security men that commences while the lights are still up, and a sizzling onstage downpour--is consistently striking. I've never read the original play (surprise), but Peter Oswald's adaptation hits the sweet spot between period flavor and contemporary jazziness: you sense the archaic idiom without getting bogged down in it. And the leading ladies, Janet McTeer and Harriet Walter, are perfectly matched in their passive-aggressive battle for the British throne. Walter's Elizabeth I has the whip hand, of course--she's already queen. So what we get is asymmetrical warfare, with McTeer's Mary Stuart deploying the weaker party's favorite weapons: guilt, guile, morality. The play is perhaps too talky, especially in the first act. One senses the heavy hand of Basil Exposition for the first fifteen minutes, filling in the blanks. But it the end, Mary Stuart does cast its swift, cerebral spell. And there's an additional novelty to the female cut-and-thrust. In an era of rigid patriarchy, these women are contending for absolute power, while the coterie of scheming men, who seem to have taken a management course with Niccolò Machiavelli, scuttle around their feet.