Intermission Talk

“The Drawer Boy” takes “The Revisionist”

to “Belleville” leaving “The Cat On A Hot

Tin Roof” with “Talley’s Folly”

by TONY VELLELA

Like Tom in Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie,” Matt in Lanford Wilson’s “Talley’s Folly” is a principal character in the play, and also its narrator.  They both open their plays with an orientation lesson. of sorts, explaining background and relationships.  Tom announces at the top of his story that “This play is memory.”  Matt, unfortunately, makes no such declaration, and that difference is what distinguishes a great classic [the first] from a very, very good play [the second].  Had Wilson fessed up and given us the distance and perspective the realm of memories affords, “Folly” would go down much smoother.

Matt bounces onto the stage, explaining in the present tense that “the battle is turning” in World War II, prophesying that “‘peace and prosperity’ are in the air,” and that the “hope the people had known has been changed into the enemy.”  This sounds scarily like we’ve got ninety-plus minutes ahead of us filled with the rapid-delivery musings [and rantings] of a second-rate miscreant.  He soon makes it clear that something else is in store.

An early forties Invisible Man accountant, Matt has come back to his hometown, Lebanon, Missouri on this July Fourth eve, standing alone now in a rundown old boathouse on the Talley family property.  He is soon joined by Sally, a late thirties attractive but conservative-presenting woman who wants him to leave the property, and abandon the notion that she wants to spend any time with him.

The foundation element of the story concerns a brief non-carnal encounter the two had one year ago, on this spot, when, in each of their retellings, they permitted because of personal problems that rendered them vulnerable.  The difference is that Matt has turned that event into an almost sacred transgression, and he is back to rekindle what he thought was there.  A nurses’ aide at a local hospital, Sally suffers through Matt’s unwelcome appearance at her job.  There is a certain “meet cute” formula going on here, except that we join the pair somewhere in mid-dudgeon, and since they have history, there’s an insider quality to the barbs.  Later, when they segue into banter, is far more enjoyable.

Of course we can guess the ending.  Getting there, in this play, depends entirely on the casting, and director Michael Wilson has scored a one-and-three-quarters coup of sorts.  Danny Burstein, a Tony nominee for his touching performance in last season’s “Follies,” uses a kind of  ’shock and awe’ approach to his Matt, delivering some over-the-top moments that at times make you wish Sally would just walk back up that hill.  You know that inside his puffed-up chest resides a heart of, maybe not gold, but maybe silver.  Gold-plated silver.

There’s an appealing breakability to Sarah Paulson’s Sally.  She, too, presents an obvious inner softer side.  She is, after all, a woman who helps to nurse the physically wounded back to health.  Paulson doesn’t permit Sally to let out a smile for more than half the play, despite Matt’s clever witticisms.

Why is “Talley’s Folly” like a tea kettle?  Two reasons.  First, it will take its own time to boil, regardless of how studiously you stare at it.  And second, when its boiling point has been reached, the steam spurts out forcefully, rather like a volcano.  While the soft, gentle conclusion here does not have the force of a volcano, it was predictable.  [Warning: Mixed metaphor ahead.]  It erupts.  Tea, anyone?

Isn’t it flat-out annoying when productions of two new plays are compared and contrasted, that have opened within a week or so of each other, when that’s the only thing they seem to have in common?  Did they want us to think there’s some sort of closed-door clearinghouse that governs which themes should be addressed next spring, or whether plays set in the 1930s should be on the boards at the same time?  Spoiler’s Alert:  I am about to try very hard to avoid such a practice.

The plays in question are “Belleville,” by Amy Herzog, [exhibit B], at the New York Theatre Workshop, and “The Revisionist,” by Jesse Eisenberg [exhibit R], at the Cherry Lane Playhouse.  Both are set ‘today,’ single domestic set – B in Paris and R in Szczecin, Poland.  Both have American primary characters – B a late 20s-early 30s married couple, R a young emerging children’s book writer in his 20s.  Both have strained relationships with their hosts – the B couple, who are renting an apartment in the Belleville neighborhood of Paris from a Senegalese couple, and young R with his distant elderly female cousin whom he has no memory of meeting her when he was ten.  The Americans exhibit at times blatant acts of ingratitude, and both men have a pot habit that impairs their judgment and behavior. Exhibit R has three characters, while B has four.  Both plots hinge on a phone call from the U.S.A.  Taken together, they could be subtitled ‘Little Secrets and Great Big Lies.’ R’s delicate balance is poised on a carefully-maintained secret, while unspoken lies bind together, then shatter the B couple.

Other than that, they are entirely different.  Exception: they both can grab your attention fiercely, and not let go.

Exhibit B gives us a strung-out young woman, Abby [Maria Dizzia], whose occupation is yoga instructor, married to Zack [Greg Keller], who works with an international children’s AIDS project.  Abby has a pattern of acting without thought to consequences, or forgetting to complete something she committed herself to doing, always concluding with a practiced “Sorry.”  Zack is tolerance personified.  On the surface, they could be the children of well-to-do hippie parents.  However, Abby’s indifferent or outright callous approach to so many things marks her as damaged goods, the cause not revealed early on.  She assumes Zack will make anything right, and that he will be unjudgmentally [is that a word?] forgiving of all her transgressions.  And her behavior can be as exhausting as what makes parents of autistic children so frayed and in need of their own care-giving source.  Zack, to fulfill that role,  uses pot.

As this pre-Christmas slice-of-ever-volatile life tale unfolds over two days’ time, Abby learns that their funds have long since run out [no clear explanation of where grocery money is coming from].  The Old World genteel building manager [Phillip James Brannon], allowing them to stay on into an unpaid month number four, informs Zack that his uncle, the actual landlord, was for a time willing to take his nephew into his real estate business as a partner.  The uncle’s offer has been withdrawn, after he checked the books and found this glaring deficit.  The building manager, faced with the potential loss of his promising business future, and the unwillingness of his wife [Pascale Armand], who recently bore their first child, to tolerate Zack’s insensitivity to her husband’s situation, gives them two more days to come up with the back rent, and at that point, they still must vacate.

Parts of this tale you recognize from so many other sources: Abby’s mother died, which led her to marry Zack, for security; she goes off her anti-depressant meds, with familiar but painful-to-watch consequences; he goes from fibs, to little white lies, to Lies; the everything-happens-during-two days’-time aspect; the last scene totally up-ending the core of the story.

But many parts you do not recognize.  Herzog salts the familiar with so many other spices, through the power of her engaging details.  When we start getting into the high weeds of a couple’s mutual trust destruction, we’ve learned enough about them to track their missteps, lost opportunities, personal fears and fanciful fantasies.  Imagine someone holding in two hands a delicate clear glass punch bowl, swaying it back and forth for a while, then losing his grip.  It falls slowly [in slo-mo, in fact, in your imagination], and crashes on the hardwood floor.  The story line here is like that crystal bowl.  Shards of glass impale everyone, as they fly up from the floor.  Try as they will, no amount of apologies and rationalizations and appeals and pleas can reverse the progression of this couples’ uncoupling, until the inevitable tragic ending.  Half a century ago, they could have been a failed version of George & Martha – sad, sad, sad.

Jesse Eisenberg [yes, the actor from "The Social Network" and other films] has written a two-and-a-half hander curio taking place in an aging two-and-a-half room apartment in the Polish part city of Szczecin.  Nested there contentedly lives Maria, in her 70s, unmarried, and when we join her, listening to American National Public Radio news reporting.  She proceeds to fuss about the place, obviously in expectation of a special visitor.  And when David [the actor Eisenberg] arrives from America, she cannot contain her joy at seeing this distant cousin, two generations younger.  Maria agreed to David’s visit when he requested it, as a sanctuary to rewrite, at his editor’s condition, his second children’s book, destined to the same limited appeal as his first.  Maria gives David her [the only] bedroom.  Above the bed are pictures of various family members from the past sixty years, whose presence unnerves him.  They get off to a bristly start, with David turning down her specially-prepared, costly dinner, wanting to get to work immediately.  When she relates some of the plans she’s made for his stay, he upbraids her sharply, reminding her that he is there to write, nothing else.  The frost does not soon melt.

A few warm spots happen, when spotty family anecdotes are exchanged, and David shows some courtesy and even gratitude.  He maintains a suspicion that Maria is the subject of government spying, finding repeated phone calls from someone who says she is soliciting charitable contributions.  However, three days in, when wine induces a more serious colloquy, a very very big lie surfaces.  It rips the ribbon that has tenuously come to connect them.  Once out, David must leave, and Maria must try to reconstruct her personal identity with the mere twigs that she had gathered to fashion the foundation of her life.  The premise, though parochial in its scope, much the same as the type of construct Herzog employs is “Belleville,” is attractive for its seeming smallness. It is Eisenberg’s intelligent yet deceptively prosaic dialogue that rivets us.

And, did I note that Maria is being created by Vanessa Redgrave?  Nessa [as her now-deceased sister Lynn, and the Redgrave family, used to call her] seems to possess the ability to expand or contract, to fit the playing space she’s working in.  I first saw her on Broadway twenty-five years ago, as Lady in Tennessee Williams’ literally incendiary “Orpheus Descending,” a role that requires every kind of voluminous delivery.  Here, she resembles a cartoon grey mouse, living quietly behind that black baseboard archway.  And because the Cherry Lane is a compact off-Broadway house, her every carefully-calibrated, even wondrous movement and glance and muttering can be taken in by every audience member.  It’s a living compendium of how to act for the theatre.

And however cleverly Eisenberg has fashioned  this long one-act piece, it is ultimately the Redgrave performance that gives it its singularity.  Eisenberg [playwright and actor] gives us the young, self-important brat that he can consume for lunch.  And the originality of the premise, how it handles its issues of how the need to revise one’s work and one’s life can carve out that person’s perceived identity, enhances the experience of spending a short visit in Szczecin.

From Paris and Poland, next up: the Mississippi Delta, where it looks like not all the cats are hangin’ out on that famous tin roof.  To take it from some of the more quotable critics, Scarlett Johansen as Maggie in that Tennessee Williams classic scorcher gives a stinker of a performance.  But I’m here to testify that the pulchritudinous Ms. J is giving one of the best interpretations of that titular character that I’ve ever seen.  And personally, she is a gorgeous eyeful.

“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” poses serious obstacles for any young woman trying to make us forget Elizabeth Taylor in that white silk slip, one of the most iconic images from mid-twentieth century filmdom.  It’s like watching an eager young actor show up for an audition doing the “Stella!” monologue from “Streetcar,” daring us not to compare him to Brando.  Maggie has been lugging around her own personal burlap bag full of lies for years now, lies about the ‘ideal’ marriage she’s in, with the football gilded god, Brick.  It’s Brick’s father’s birthday, and the old man’s nearest and dearest have gathered to pay tribute, especially those who harbor jackpot envy for Big Daddy’s fortune, if and when the suspicions that he has terminal cancer are true.

Big Daddy’s fortune flows from the canny stewardship he’s exercised over ‘the most  fertile scrap of land this side of the river Nile.’  Along with cotton, he has been eager to grow him a pair of proper heirs apparent, a son and a grandson he trusts, to name in his will.

Enter Maggie/Scarlett.  Or should we say re-enter.  Married to Big D’s favorite son, her avaricious desires are hampered by the most obvious of shortcomings in this little melodrama: Maggie and Brick are childless.  And Brick’s solicitous brother Gooper and his strident and ever-pregnant wife Mae are expecting their fifth offspring.

But watch what Johansen does with Maggie’s millstone, Brick.  Instead of over-preening, hip-strutting about the bedroom/stage, she keeps both ‘eyes’ on the bathroom where he’s finishing up a shower.  As Brick, Benjamin Taylor ["Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson"] skillfully navigates the room, holding a drink, using a crutch and wearing only a towel.  Miss Maggie smoothly, carefully navigates the room, delivering one of the most challenging monologues in the Tennessee Williams/American theatre canon.  And she does it catching every nuance and inflexion that was probably in TW’s head as the words got pounded out on his manual typewriter.  It’s easy to overlook what Maggie’s ’stakes’ are in this head-to-head competition between her husband and his brother, the personal stakes – an inheritance, a mind-numbing fortune that would forever keep her from sliding back into the poverty she compares to being as poor as Job’s turkey.  Sure, it’s all that.  But Brick would also inherit all that.  What’s at stake for Maggie the Cat is maybe her last chance to solidify her status as a true beauty, the lust-satisfying all-woman creature.  Because as long as she has not borne Brick’s child, her reason for being is hollow.

And that’s the challenge Miss Johansen tackles eight times a week, prepping herself for more of Big Daddy’s admiring, lingering glances, knowing that it’s her seemingly casual sex-appeal appearance that keeps his hope alive that Brick will father a child.

There was, and may still be, a wry anthem sung by TV’s “South Park” kids, “Blame Canada!”  This time, it’s Canada we have to thank, for the arrival of Michael Healey’s thoroughly engaging, well-crafted “The Drawer Boy.”  Set on a small farm in central Ontario during the summer of 1972,  the entire story unfolds in the kitchen, on the back porch and the back yard of a sustainable farm, run by two friends, Morgan [Brad Fryman] and Angus [William Lacey].  Now middle-aged, they served together in WWII, which left Angus, who is a math savant, stricken with a condition that robs him of some memory, and Morgan has become his caretaker, although they both share the work of running the farm.  Enter callous, young Miles [Alex Fast], a drama student who is part of a group using the summer to produce a new play about farm life, and seeks a kind of trade.  Alex would like to board with Morgan and Angus, and observe how the day-to-day operations take place, in exchange for doing whatever he can when he’s not at rehearsal with his theatre company in the nearby town.

It’s hard to tell what category or genre to expect once Miles arrives, because the elements are there for a fish-out-of-water comedy, an unnerving thriller or a rural drama.  Healey’s skills have given us some of each, in perfect balance.

As the weeks go by, we see a tender friendship grow between Miles and Angus.  Angus continues to search quietly for “something” in the house or on the property, not being able to recall what it is, except that it is significant.  But an undercurrent of unspoken tensions rise to the surface.  Details of how they burst forth, due to innocently-told stories from classic theatre by Miles to Angus, with life-changing consequences, will not be revealed here, because this is one work that deserves the courtesy [to the writer] of being experienced fresh.  What must be said is that all three actors have an unaffected style of work, keeping their presence and interplay well within the scope of the story, and, due to the excellent, serviceable set designed by Rebecca Lord-Surratt, have no need to compromise what they do.

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After-Pieces

If you only consider the pair of titles – “Waiting for Godot” and “No Man’s Land” – you might be inclined to watch old episodes of “Downton Abbey” instead of attending that gloomy-sounding evening in the theatre.  But, wait!  What we have here is Harold Pinter’s “Godot,” and Samuel Beckett’s “Land,” starring Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, and they’re bringing their priceless talents to these revered works, in repertory, directed by Sean Mathias.  The Broadway-bound package arrives in Gotham in the fall . . . . . These two great actors are masters of the spoken word, to be sure.  Another form that celebrates the spoken word is the poetry slam, and if you’re one of those folks who scoff at the idea of poetry slams, open your mind and let this new talent in!  I was privileged to see and hear top-level poetry jams produced by Russell Simmons, who told me about his devotion to giving these young performers, who write all their own material, a real platform to shine, and they did.   On April 20th, celebrating National Poetry Month, the 15th Annual Teen Poetry Slam Finals, with contestants from across the country, will fill the Apollo Theatre stage, presented by Urban Word NYC.  For details, visit apollotheater.org, then visit the Apollo . . . . . While we enjoy [and possibly compete for tickets to] Bette Midler in the solo show “I’ll Eat You Last,” a different Divine Miss M vehicle, the beloved 1988 film “Beaches” has been adapted for the musical theatre stage.

The announcement was made by Eric Schaeffer, artistic director of Arlington, Virginia’s Signature Theatre.  It washes up on shore next February . . . . . Now in its 18th season, Rattlestick Theatre Company, in the West Village, is responsible for, among other things, the premiere production of Jesse Eisenberg’s “The Revisionist,” running now at the Cherry Lane.  Up ahead for Rattlestick is a daring expansion – the opening of a Los Angeles production of the new play “Slipping,” by Daniel Talbott, for a five-week run, starting on April 7.  They’re taking with them this season’s “Golden Boy,” the tremendous Seth Numrich.  For details: www.Rattlestick.org/rattlestick-LA.

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On Book

Lanford Wilson was one of America’s greatest playwrights.  To broaden your familiarity with his works, try “Volumes I and II – Lanford Wilson’s Collected Works” from Smith and Kraus. . . . . It’s great to report that Michael Healey’s “The Drawer Boy,” which won 4 Dora Awards, including Outstanding New Play,  is available from Playwrights Canada Press, based in Toronto. . . . . If you enjoy one-acts, one of the best at that form is Murray Schisgal, and his two break-out favorites, “The Typists” and “The Tiger,” ran together in New York in 1963, starring real-life married couple Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson.

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TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS series about theatre, “Character Studies.”  His play, “Admissions,” which had three New York productions directed by Austin Pendleton, won the Best Play Award at the New York International Fringe Festival.  He has also written several other plays and musicals, and two political musical comedy reviews, all produced.  He wrote the Cable Ace Award-winning “Test of Time” for Lifetime Television.  He has taught at Columbia University Teacher’s College, Syracuse University, HB Studio and other institutions, and continues to teach small seminars and individual coaching sessions from home.  Information is available through tvellela@nyc.rr.com.

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