Tuesday, April 21, 2009


Mary, Mary

Lately I've seen a run of bad plays. I don't go to the theater that much, and certainly don't get comp tickets, but it wasn't really the wasted cash that bothered me. It was the suspicion that I was turning into one of those cranky, anhedonic types--I always think of Max von Sydow in Hannah and Her Sisters, eating a tuna sandwich and pouring out his Scandavian scorn upon whatever happened to be on the television. First there was Irena's Vow, a specimen of Holocaust kitsch only halfway redeemed by Tovah Feldshuh's performance in the lead role. (Talk about typecasting: Feldshuh cut her teeth playing Golda Meir, and now she's the first call when you need a resilient Jewish female--although Irena Gut Opdkye, the real-life Pole whose heroics form the basis of the play, was not herself Jewish.) Before we even set foot in the theater, I made a prediction to my companion: there would be a moment where the heroine confronted a Nazi officer and said, "I know there is good in you." When that moment came, she gave a little inward groan, and I just smiled.

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.

Labels: , , ,

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?