Theater November 2018
Playing all the angles
On The Nap at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, Bernhardt/Hamlet at the American Airlines Theatre, and On Beckett at the Irish Rep.
The Nap (the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre through November 11) is the pile of the cloth that covers a snooker table, which is always kept scrupulously flat and lovingly ironed, always in the same direction. Run your hand across it one way, and it’s smooth. Try the reverse direction, though, and you’ll find it surprisingly rough, even a bit resistant. A ball traveling with the nap goes straight and true, but one sent on the reverse path is liable to wobble off course. Dylan Spokes, an amiable young man who holds the rank of 107th-best snooker player on the planet (which equates to earnings of about 2,000 euros), swears that he always plays with the nap. He’s honest, not crooked. This is unfortunate for him, as a group of gangsters would like very much for him to throw a key frame in an upcoming high-stakes match. Just to provide a little inspiration they have kidnapped his mother and are threatening to shoot her in the head.
Naturally the play, by Britain’s Richard Bean, is a comedy, and an excellent one, at least until the plot takes a turn from the anarchic to the formulaic in the second act. Bean spends the first act arranging a delightful set of characters who ping nastily off one another. The standout in the cast is John Ellison Conlee as Bobby Spokes, the aging cynic with a shady past who alternately encourages and insults his son Dylan (Ben Schnetzer), a sensitive vegetarian who wears his long hair in a bun, as the younger man practices for the snooker championships in a dilapidated back room in Sheffield. Finding a tabloid newspaper from 2013, Bobby happily notes that the former Bee Gee Robin Gibb has passed on. Why is this good news? “Cheers me up every time a vegetarian dies of cancer,” avers the old man. Bobby, it turns out, was once a drug dealer, but he wasn’t very good at it: he can’t do maths. So he isn’t eager to chat with a sports regulator (Bhavesh Patel) and a detective (Heather Lind) who turn up demanding a urine test for Dylan while asking pointed questions about whether he ever threw a match for betting purposes. Bobby is a bit incredulous that his miserable, pack-of-crisps-and-a-pint world is being identified as some sort of big-money vortex: “Do I look like I’m doing well out of organized crime?,” he asks, flinging open his arms to the atmospheric dinge.
The cast of reprobates includes Bobby’s shrewish wife, Stella (an appropriately loud Johanna Day), her vaguely disreputable working-class Irish boyfriend (Thomas Jay Ryan), and Dylan’s slick, pastel-suit-wearing agent (Max Gordon Moore), but all of these are overshadowed by the mobster looming over everything like a transgendered, small-market Al Capone. Waxy Bush (Alexandra Billings), formerly a man who dated Dylan’s mom, is now a woman with a wooden left arm who is used to getting her way. She says that Dylan’s earlier failure to tank a game has left him owing her mob £170,000. To make amends he can either remit that sum to her forthwith or intentionally lose the fourth game in the upcoming match. Her threats are balanced by malapropisms at which the others are terrified to laugh: “I have hope. I am nothing if not an optometrist!,” she exclaims. An associate is “a huge Bronson fan. Emily Bronson, Wuthering Heights?” Advising us on why she got into the money rackets in the first place, she says, “Shakespeare tells us, ‘Either a lender or a borrower be.’ ” Meanwhile, Dylan and the detective, who turns out to be a former pole dancer who wears a sparkling party dress under her overcoat, strike up a flirtation when she questions him further in his hotel room. “Shall we kiss?,” he asks. “Each other?,” she replies.
Things could veer into the insane or the cute, and I’m sorry to report that Bean chooses the latter. The first act recalls the ink-black comedies of his fellow British dramatist Martin McDonagh, but whereas McDonagh’s best plays grow increasingly uncontained as they race toward a climax, The Nap folds itself into a neat little package. The second-act drama largely sidelines character confrontation in favor of tracing developments in the championship snooker match creatively staged by the director Daniel Sullivan, with a camera mounted above the table showing us every development. But we don’t actually much care who wins.
Bean is a dialogue man, not one to bother much with plot twists, and following the development of a single wrinkle I expected much more in the way of complications, especially after Bobby, who is as loopy as Waxy, expends a lot of energy inquiring whether anyone else has ever heard of that one movie, it was about grifters, it starred Warren Beatty’s wife . . . (He of course means 1990’s The Grifters.) What could have been a great play winds up merely being a good one, albeit with heaps of hilarity along the way. I’d be lying if I said The Nap is unforgettable, but it makes for a breezy evening.
The point of Bernhardt/Hamlet (the American Airlines Theatre through November 18) escaped me entirely. Two hours of watching nineteenth-century theater folk debating how to do Hamlet? Interrupted by fifteen minutes of pondering whether the heroine of Cyrano de Bergerac is an adequately well-rounded character? Halfway through this labored, plodding comedy by Theresa Rebeck, the thought came to me that the goal was to accomplish something like the 1999 film Shakespeare in Love: a bit of shop talk, a bit of backstage romance, and in the end we all marvel at the magic of the theater and the irrepressible souls who work in it. Shakespeare in Love, however, featured a dewy Gwyneth Paltrow. Bernhardt/Hamlet stars the fifty-seven-year-old Janet McTeer.
The point of McTeer, too, escapes me: an androgynous, brittle, frosty six-footer, she has an angular, avian quality. I’d cast her as a Nazi prison guard or maybe a street lamp.
The point of McTeer, too, escapes me: an androgynous, brittle, frosty six-footer, she has an angular, avian quality. I’d cast her as a Nazi prison guard or maybe a street lamp. Here she plays Sarah Bernhardt in 1897, and we’re meant to find her approachable, informal, warm, funny, even sexy. This is the formidable Bernhardt? Color me unpersuaded that the grande dame was anything like this. The attempt to charm is simply beyond the capability of McTeer, who gives her all but is about as cuddly as aluminum. Not that the most luscious actress on earth could have saved this wretched play.
A glance at the reviews reveals that critics are mostly praising Bernhardt/Hamlet, usually in the course of proclaiming their feminist bona fides, which goes to show you the degree to which judgment is poisoned by fear of running afoul of the prevailing, ruthlessly policed orthodoxy. The Roundabout Theatre Company seems to have picked up this piece to tick a few political-correctness boxes: female playwright, dominant female character, and several instances of insistent, clunky feminism in the text. Such are its flaws that it feels like a not particularly impressive first draft, however, lacking even the rudiments of craftsmanship. There is no compelling central conflict, for example, just a series of dull micro-conflicts, nor is there a worthy goal to be met or even a secret to be revealed. The entire evening is a slog through the trivial and the mild. When, towards the end, the potential arises for a serious dispute, Rebeck simply misses it, or perhaps she ignores it because it doesn’t align with her image of Bernhardt as a path-breaking feminist hero.
Bernhardt, in Paris, is rehearsing Hamlet even as some around her cast doubts, notably a critic called Louis (Tony Carlin) who is, I suppose, a stand-in for all of those toxic males who prevent bold women from realizing their dreams. For a playwright or any other storyteller to make a critic the punching bag for the audience (which did indeed boo the character at the performance I attended) is self-serving and lazy. When that critic symbolizes reactionary sexism, in a New York City theater, the writing devolves from attempted art to tossing a platter of Alpo at a Doberman.
Bernhardt is having an affair with the playwright Edmond Rostand, whose wife is beginning to suspect something and isn’t delighted to be left home alone with two children while he philanders. Rebeck’s concern for this poor woman, played by Ito Aghayere, is nonexistent; though one woman is stepping all over another’s life, the first one is famous and the second one just a housewife, so she should presumably keep quiet and let Bernhardt be magnificent. As is often the case with feminists, the play rubbishes the concerns of women for whom family life is the center of existence in favor of the minority of them for whom career achievement is all.
The feminism, though, bubbles up only here and there. Mostly Bernhardt/Hamlet is a leaden discussion about this or that detail of the production: an astounding amount of stage time is expended on discussing what the advertising poster should look like, with much agonizing by the artist designing it, Matthew Saldivar’s Alphonse Mucha. There are long digressions into, for instance, the matter of the motivation of the ghost of Hamlet’s father (Dylan Baker). At the end of Act I, Rebeck devises this cliffhanger: “I want you to rewrite Hamlet!,” Bernhardt orders Rostand. This development doesn’t lead anywhere much, unless you count a lengthy discussion in which Rostand explains to Alphonse that Bernhardt wants him to remove the poetry from the work. Then we segue into the writing of Rostand’s next play, Cyrano de Bergerac. The author hopes Bernhardt will play Roxanne, but she is offended that the character is essentially a statue and shouts at him, “Playing the ingenue is beneath me! It’s beneath all women!” This is what passes for an applause line in today’s self-congratulatory theater, and the audience at the performance I attended dutifully burst into a roar as ordered. Playing the ingenue is, of course, how a great many women became rich and famous, but—feminism!—women who achieve success in unapproved ways must be frowned upon. I wonder if Paltrow has any plans to turn over the millions she earned playing ingenues to the National Organization for Women. I wonder how many other actresses who began lengthy careers by playing ingenues consider those roles beneath them.
Samuel Beckett is for me like chicken pox: a mildly dispiriting experience one undergoes in youth, never to recur.
Samuel Beckett is for me like chicken pox: a mildly dispiriting experience one undergoes in youth, never to recur. For the actor and clown Bill Irwin, however, the “famous Irish writer of famously difficult works,” as he calls Beckett, is the source of a decades-long fascination. In an (essentially) one-man show, On Beckett (the Irish Rep through November 4), Irwin combines personal reflections on the Irish obscurantist with readings from the works Texts for Nothing, Watt, Waiting for Godot, and The Unnamable. Irwin has plunged into any number of parts in his long and admirable career, but pronounces himself singularly unable to escape Beckett’s language. Our host’s enthusiasm is infectious, and Irwin’s chatty, sincere presentation is attractively unpretentious. “Laughter,” he directs us, “is allowed.” He doesn’t luxuriate in jargon (Irwin cringes as if from toothache when he pronounces the word “existentialism,” and he lives up to his promise to use it only the once). Nor, wrapping things up in a tidy ninety minutes, does he overstay his welcome. My affection for Beckett remains bounded, but I suppose Irwin makes as creditable a case for Beckett as can be made. If S. B. is in fact your cup of tea, or if you seek a basic yet highly personal overview of the work, get yourself a ticket. Irwin is so engaging that, for some, On Beckett could serve as the overture to a lifetime’s appreciation.
The source of fascination for Irwin is, I think, his status as both an unapologetic clown (as he so describes himself in his C.V.) and a serious actor. Irwin gave one of the most contrarian and greatest stage performances I’ve ever seen, opposite Kathleen Turner in the 2005 Broadway revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, yet poured equal dedication into one of television’s longest-running roles, Mr. Noodle on Sesame Street. Stage directions in, for instance, Waiting for Godot (Irwin explains why he pronounces it GOD-oh, as do the British, rather than the American guh-DOUGH) make it clear that it is meant to be at some level a physical comedy atop an existential inquiry. Picture a Venn diagram of slapstick farce and modernist void-contemplation: Beckett and Irwin are among the few standing in the overlapping area. “Was Beckett a writer of the body, or of the intellect?,” asks Irwin. “It’s a question you could waste a lot of time on.”
For an actor, Beckett delivers an additional gift: ambiguity. The performer becomes an equal partner with the author in shaping a meaning out of the words. Irwin approaches even the prose in terms of acting, which is useful enough when you consider such puzzlers as Texts for Nothing, a collection of thirteen arcane ruminations written in 1950, the year of Irwin’s birth. The first, a monologue by a man lying in a ditch on a hill for “an hour, a month, a year, a century,” confides, “there’s no more to see, I’ve seen it all, till my eyes are blear, nor to get away from harm, the harm is done, one day the harm was done, the day my feet dragged me out that must go their ways,” etc. Irwin sees such texts as transcripts of our muddled internal conversations, the sounds a mind makes when it’s talking to itself. I see crumbs of thought, a barstool bore’s useless ramblings. What is art that rejects the challenge to shape order out of such chaos? What is art that wallows in its own uncertainty, even uncertainty about whether it is art at all? Irwin may take pleasure in such directionless perambulations. I don’t. The modernist fascination with turning artistic imperatives inside-out ---what shall I say? How shall I say it? Can you understand my noble anguish?—strikes me as thinly veiled navel-gazing. Come to me with your finished work, not your doubts.
Irwin states that he gets excited by Beckett’s “wild pronoun energy,” meaning that he finds adventure in sorting out who exactly the Is and yous and theys are. This seems a bit mad, although it’s amusing to watch Irwin grapple with such questions as he continuously takes out costumes and props from behind a lectern and a bench that constitute the only scenery. Irwin is in so deep that he deploys several slightly different bowlers for different segments. Beckett once said, about the staging of Waiting for Godot, “the only thing I’m sure of is that they’re wearing bowler hats,” hence the Beckettians’ fetishization of haberdashery.
Irwin saves for his climax some passages from that play, Beckett’s most (indeed, only) popular work, which in its original Broadway run in the spring of 1956 lasted just under two months. Irwin repeats the mot (by the late Irish critic Vivian Mercier) that Godot is “a play in which nothing happens—twice,” which is a line funnier than any Beckett ever wrote, but he disagrees with the sentiment. How could he not? For the actors, a great deal happens. As directed by Mike Nichols in 1988 at Lincoln Center, Irwin played the woebegone Lucky alongside F. Murray Abraham’s Ponzo, Steve Martin’s Vladimir, and Robin Williams’s Estragon; during Lucky’s long monologue, in which the other characters physically try to stop him from speaking, he recalls Williams’s body hurtling at him. What is happening in Godot is what is happening in Beckett: language. Unruly, voluptuous, cryptic. Ultimately it’s more taxing than inspiring, more muddled than enlightening. Beckett’s words don’t soar, they drag. Even Irwin confesses, in the final minutes of the evening, “Sometimes you have to get away from Samuel Beckett . . . . Sometimes you want to look for a language—look for realms in the theater—that are not Samuel Beckett.” Even as so cheerfully administered by Irwin, a small dose of Beckett is more than enough.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 3, on page 37
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