by Richard Seff, NY Theatre Buzz Columnist
- Dead Man’s Cell Phone . Hunting and Gathering . Sunday in the Park with George
Feb 18, 2008 — We’d been warned that business would be off in New York theatre in the bleak days of January-February. But no one told us that the Artistic Directors at Playwrights’ Horizons and Primary Stages would be having a slump too. It’s not realistic to ask that each entry be a home run, but one is beginning to suspect a touch of elitism creeping in to blur objective decisions. Sarah Ruhl, at Playwrights Horizons, has a new play called “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” and its cast includes Mary-Louise Parker, Kathleen Chalfont and David Aaron Baker, among other talented players.
So one approaches the theatre with high hopes. I certainly did. After all, Ms. Ruhl’s “The Clean House” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, her “Euridice” delighted major members of the press, her “Demeter In The City” was nominated for an NAACP Award. I haven’t seen all her work, but I tried hard and failed to find “The Clean House” satisfying (as I recall, it began with what seemed like a 10 minute monologue – in Portuguese), and “Euridice” which took place in the underworld, left me feeling diminished on leaving the theatre, and that is not a good thing. Now, with “Dead Man’s Cell Phone”, we were off to a very good start.
Dead Man’s Cell Phone
In a bleak and deserted coffee shop, the beautiful, fey, original Jean, (Mary Louise Parker) is discovered writing copious notes into a notebook. Diagonally across from her, with his back partly turned away from us, a man sits, a cell phone by his side on the table. Both have clearly just completed some sort of meal. His cell phone rings. And rings. And rings again. In rising to investigate why he doesn’t answer it, Ms. Parker discovers the poor guy is dead. As his phone rings on, she answers it, dazed, and tells the caller that Gordon, the dead man, is not presently available.
Some chuckles were heard here, and it all looked promising. For reasons never explained, there are no other diners in the coffee shop, and there is no staff. Already I’m suspecting metaphor and that always makes me nervous. But I’m ready to go along on this journey. As Ms. Parker continues to answer the cell phone whenever it rings (which is a lot) we meet Gordon’s Mother (Kathleen Chalfont, looking very sexy and chic in a red cocktail dress that features her remarkable long legs), his wife Hermia, his mistress and his misfit brother Dwight, in whom Jean finds a soul mate. Jean, instead of calling for an ambulance when she discovers the dead Gordon, opts instead to insinuate herself into his past life, and manages to do so as those she meets assume she was very close to him, else why would she have possession of his cell phone? I don’t know what all this means, but I just didn’t find it funny. There were odd pockets of laughter throughout the theatre, but when one of them came as “You’ll Never Walk Alone” was played when Gordon’s mother asked for a hymn at his funeral, I withdrew. Again, kind critics, but for me, Ms. Ruhl’s had three strikes and she’s out. I’d suggest she try a novella next time, for she does have a way with words, but to my mind, she has not yet mastered plays as an outlet for her creative juices.
Mary Louise Parker is a gem and a joy. She reminds one of the late Sandy Dennis, another fine actress who succumbed to mannerism as her career advanced. This Jean is second cousin to the character Ms. Parker plays on the tv series “Weeds”, and my word of advice to this lovely actress with the beautiful face and form: “Beware. Try something less fey and other-worldly next time. Find yourself a play in which you can stay closer to “Proof”, in which you triumphed, and further from “Reckless”, which was too close to your current vehicle.
Hunting and Gathering
A week or so later, I arrived at the lovely complex called 59 East 59th Street, home to Primary Stages. This month’s attraction is “Hunting and Gathering” by a writer new to me, Brooke Berman. The play is directed by Leigh Silverman and features 4 players, two of them second generation – Mamie Gummer, daughter of Meryl Streep, and Keira Naughton, daughter of James Naughton. Again, intrigued by very positive press, I had high hopes for this play.
Actually, I always have high hopes, for I am a theatre devotee, and I can’t remember when I last left a theatre before the evening was over. There’s almost always something to intrigue or attract me. It could be the cast (it often is; I am many times astonished at how good actors can make a bad play acceptable), the content of the writing even if the form could use work; even a brilliant set has been known to hold me in my seat. What’s been happening lately is lazy playwrights have been handing us ’90 minute wonders’, one-acters stretched to ‘full length’ with no intermission, hence no dignified escape. “Hunting and Gathering” fills that bill. In minutes, I knew I was in trouble, for the technique used here by Ms. Silverman is cinematic, not theatrical. Dozens of short scenes or sketches in multiple settings make the writing easier, but there is no structure, no build, no craft. As a result I identified with no one, felt empathy for no one, was never engaged.
This long one act play tells of four interconnected New Yorkers on their course through thwarted attempts to find a place – without compromise. Its theme is: “Do you have to be a predator to survive?”. It’s a valid theme, relevant, and though it doesn’t personally pertain to me, as I’ve been here a while and I’m not unsettled, as these four characters are, I would have liked to learn more, to care more. But these are unappealing people, not good company even for 90 minutes.
All four seem terrified of commitment, and they all extend adolescence and its behavior into their thirties. I don’t have a lot of interest in a man who calls himself ‘the van man’ because he has been living in a van, and now wants to rise to borrowing his big brother’s couch. I call these folks “the whiners”. I realize I’m from an older generation, brought up to take what we were given, and move on from there depending on our needs and wants. I’m certain it was easier for us than it is for the new crop of young ‘uns, but slackers don’t turn me on, and 3 of these 4 could be called slackers.
Young Bess, played nicely by Mamie Gummer, is the least troublesome character, but sad to say, though Ms. Gummer is a fine actress, as she continues her stage career from season to season, she does not possess what we used to call ‘star quality’. Forget Meryl Streep, her mother, who showed it in the smallest roles as a young actress. It would not be fair to compare. But there are other young actors coming along who are more idiosyncratic, who bring to the stage more of an original stage presence. Ms. Gummer is capable, but I’m sorry to say I’ve not yet seen that spark. I’m certain she will have a rich and fulfilling career, but she is not yet capable of lifting this superficial sketch of a play into something more. Ninety minutes with these four, despite the occasional infusion of insight or wit from their author, was a long, long time.
Sunday in the Park with George
So it took an old master to bail us out. I didn’t approach Roundabout Theatre’s preview of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George” with a lot of enthusiasm because it was never one of my top five in the Sondheim oeuvre. Brittle, brilliant, interesting as Sondheim almost always is, this one left me musically bereft when I first saw it (and I’d only seen it once before this past week).
But good as James Lapine, its original director is, it took a Brit, young Sam Buntrock, to bring a fresh eye to the material, and the Roundabout production currently on at Studio 54, is enchanting. It doesn’t hurt to have young Daniel Evans and Jenna Russell, also on loan from England, in the leading roles. They are both smashing – particularly as they get to play two different characters in the musical’s two acts. In Act One, Evans is George Seurat, artist working on what would become his masterpiece, “A Sunday On The Island of La Grande Jatte”, particularly with his model Dot. The lyrics in this act are magical, literate but informative and accommodating. “Color and Light”, “Gossip”, “Finishing The Hat”, “Beautiful” are all illuminating, and they tell us all we need to know about the protagonists. But they are recitatives and I found their melodies disturbingly similar and off putting first time round. But as the act neared its conclusion, the sweep toward the finish of the picture, magically captured me ultimately in “Sunday”.
All of that was in Lapine’s production in 1984, but Sam Buntrock’s experience with animation as director on numerous commercial and corporate projects in Britain have equipped him to bring fun and light and color and imagination to the physical production this time out. And in his two stars, he has such charismatic energy flowing all through, his production is irresistible. Then, in Act Two, set in 1984, the effect of seeing an entirely new Daniel Evans, this time playing Seurat’s grandson, and Jenna Russell, playing young Seurat’s grandmother, is stunning. Her “Children and Art” and “Move On” are simple, eloquent and very moving. [Ed: Here is a video clip of Daniel and Jenna.]
So in this grouping of three, we restore the balance between plays and musicals of the New York season – a bit, anyway. Some strength with musicals, some time off for plays. No matter how often I attend, there always seems to be a lot out there waiting. I look forward to “November”, “The New Century”, “The Country Girl”, “A Catered Affair”, “Ghosts”, “In The Heights” and so much more. I hope you’ll come along with me, for win, lose or draw, I find it’s so much more rewarding sitting in a theatre than almost anywhere else.
With all my complaints about the two plays I did not like, I will be forever haunted by the grace of Mary Louise Parker, not to mention the magic in her luminous eyes, visible clearly in row K I will remember the good talk I had in the lobby with Tim Busfield, former colleague at Circle Rep, during which we reminisced about the disastrous production of “Richard II’ in which we once both appeared, reminding me that even I have on occasion contributed to an audience’s less that rewarding evening in the theatre. And that conversation sent me back into the theatre for Act II of “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” in a much jollier mood. I can only hope that our audiences for “Richard II” found something in the evening to please them, to make them glad they’d come out in the rain (it seemed to rain through the entire run).
Until next time .. . .. .