Politics, Sexual Intrigue and Lost Souls
November, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and Port Authority
By Richard Seff
David Mamet has always been bright and very much in tune with his times, often giving us goose bumps as he makes us face some of the harsh truths lurking just below the surface. But this time he’s put on his funny hat, and come up with a farce in the manner of Molière, perfectly timed for this year of political shenanigans sometimes called ‘nomination season’ or ‘how to delegate the delegates.’ Calling his comedy November, Mamet’s gotten a gaggle of producers together (I mean it; there are fifteen of them), headed by Jeffrey Richards, Jerry Frankel and Jam Theatricals, which made it possible for him to mount his timely play quickly. He’s also managed to corral Nathan Lane, Laurie Metcalf and Dylan Baker for the three central spots, and had he had a year to find a cast, he couldn’t have done better than that. Add Ethan Phillips and Michael Nichols for perfection in the smaller roles, and visit the Barrymore Theatre for lessons in the art of comic acting.
“Comedy is hard,” said actor Edmund Gwenn, supposedly on his death bed. This kind of material is particularly difficult to play because it’s much larger than life. But played too largely, it can quickly turn into nonsense. Nathan Lane is a national treasure, and he’s found himself a role that allows him to use all of his vast comic weapons to make us howl in appreciation. Watch that rubbery face of his as he reacts to comments from the others on everything from war to the price of turkeys by the pound, and you’ll instinctively know that that sort of control is not teachable; it’s in the blood. What’s equally impressive about Lane’s work is his growth over the years (in girth as well; he must watch that), for he’s learned that as effective as the large gestures and bizarre readings are, the silences in between can be just as moving or merry, and he does a couple of those “Jack Benny” slow takes that rock the rafters. Ms. Metcalf, who’s always been a fascinating actress, shows new comic genes herself, as she plays Clarice Bernstein, Jewish lesbian speech writer to Lane’s President Charles Smith. Her insistence on adopting a baby from China with her partner is the comic device with which author Mamet manages to extract every measure of mirth available. And Ms. Metcalf knows just what to do with rich material like that.
The play concerns itself with the final days before Election Day in which incumbent Smith hopes to be elected for a second term. His four year record has been dismal, and he’s at the low point in his popularity polls. Remind you of anyone you know? And with Dylan Baker as his right hand man prompting him, correcting him, advising him, directing him, he still manages to put his foot in his mouth about once in every four statements. He insults almost every possible segment of his constituency, without the slightest awareness that he’s hurting anyone. That’s dangerous, and doesn’t Mr. Mamet know it. Mr. Baker is the perfect WASP straight man, and combined with his very different turn earlier this season in Mauritius, he too is turning into one of New York theatre’s great assets. I caught this winner at the Actors’ Fund Benefit performance, which means that the audience was particularly responsive, for it contained many who work in theatre. But though the cast might have been delighted at the hoots and hollers they received all through the Morning, Night and Morning of the play’s two acts, I’m certain they receive the same sort of response every night, minus only a decibel or two.
Those nasty people are back again. Joining the evil-doers of Speed-the-Plow, The Homecoming, Sweeney Todd, The Vortex and The God of Carnage of recent vintage, now come visit the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont in and around Paris in the 1780s. They occupy the center of Christopher Hampton’s 1987 play Les Liasons Dangereuses, based on the novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos. Revived for us by the Roundabout Company, it offers Laura Linney in a return to Broadway as La Marquise de Merteuil. A little known novel written in l782 was given a new life by Hampton when his play startled London and New York in the late l980s, then became two movies, one with Glenn Close, Michelle Pfeiffer and John Malkovich, the other with Anette Bening, Colin Firth and Meg Tilly. Hampton’s dialogue sparkles and flings epigrams at us as well as wit and wisdom. These characters playing at their damaging games give us understanding of why maybe the French revolution was perhaps inevitable and necessary. This is the twilight of the gods, and many of the central characters may end up minus their heads. But for now, the definitive battle of the sexes springs to life.
For long time friends and occasional lovers Valmont and Monteuil, love is simply a game of chess. Filled with seduction, betrayal and plenty of illicit passion, this dark comedy paints the pre-Revolutionary French aristocracy in all its cynicism and decadence. To prove that the more things change the more they remain the same, I was reminded again and again of the battle royal that takes place in David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow and in Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage, both of which I saw just weeks ago in London [London Calling]. The royalty of Hollywood and the wealthy in suburban England can invest in the same kind of chicanery and power play as did the blue bloods of 18th century France. As staged by Rufus Norris, who did a similarly brilliant job with the London production of Festen, with the use of thousands of yards of drapery he has created the lush and hedonistic world of these characters who live for pleasure.
Of course they didn’t have much else on their minds. With a battalion of servants to cater to all their practical needs, they could pretty well spend their days preparing for their wild and woolly nights. Laura Linney stretches herself and manages to convince as the lady whose need to control her lovers is as essential as the need for food to sustain her body. Gifted as she is, she hasn’t the icy gene that gave Lindsay Duncan a Broadway debut in the original production that still stuns those who saw it (I saw it). Ben Daniels, imported from Britain, knows his way around a swordfight and is comfortable in and out of his clothes (he bares all in one scene), but he lacks the menace and meanness that so illuminated Alan Rickman’s performance of the role in the l987 production on Broadway. Mamie Gummer shows a comic side I’d not seen before as Cecile Volanges, the very young virgin whom Valmont deflowers to her ultimate considerable satisfaction.
The ever regal Sian Phillips swoops in and out of rooms with bravado and elegance as Valmont’s aunt, Madame de Rosemonde. Ms. Phillips played Madame de Volanges, the mother of Cecile, in one of the film versions of this play some years ago. She was born to inhabit l8th Century France, as she was ancient Rome as the grandmother of the Emperor in I, Claudius, the BBC TV series. She adds much to this production, though she only appears in three short scenes. She’s in for the kill at the final curtain though, and it’s a powerful picture, as the Vicomte and the Marquise — well, you’ll have to see for yourself, but it’s not a happy ending.
This is just the sort of thing the Roundabout should be offering. I’m sorry the house was not filled with younger people, for there is freshness in this staging, and it doesn’t have the feeling of a tired revival. It’s not totally successful, and some of the casting is merely acceptable, but it’s a rich plumcake of a play, and it should be given an airing for a new generation. All in all, a very satisfying 2 hours and forty five minutes of theatrical wizardry.
Take three excellent actors and plunk them down in the middle of a Conor McPherson play, even one that is mostly metaphor, and you have almost enough to make this 90 minute one-acter worth your while. I’d have preferred it on television on a “Talking Heads” sort of show, for that’s what we have here. Three Irishmen enter what looked to me like the waiting room at a bus terminal, (though it may be another sort of Waiting Room – you see, a metaphoric one) sit on a long bench and stare out at us. Eventually each will come forward to talk to us. So by evening’s end we’ve heard from all three of them some six or eight times. As it lasts 90 minutes, I figure each actor had about 30 minutes of center stage time to tell us his story. Port Authority weaves the stories of three generations of Irishmen as they experience loss, failure and the elusiveness of love as the author exposes the heart of the common man with his customary wit and compassion.
My problem is I’m earthbound, and this play is not . It’s whimsical in the tradition of William Saroyan, it’s mystical in the manner of Harold Pinter and as I’ve said, it’s comprised solely of monologues. It’s a failing of mine – I just don’t get terribly engaged when being lectured. I had the same problem with Vanessa Redgrave’s luminous reading of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Ben Gazzara’s go at Yogi Berra in Nobody Don’t Like Yogi, among others. As I was leaving the theatre, one audience member was explaining to five others just how these three characters were connected to each other, though neither knew the other. I hadn’t noticed that, and I think that’s because the words came so thick and fast at me, I was more intrigued with the tale they told than with the connections which were buried within them. A quick note, these observances are based on seeing the show in early preview (May 4th.) It has several weeks to go before opening.
Moodily set and lit on an empty stage, with just one large bench on which to focus, director Henry Wishcamper, a Regional and off/off Broadway theatre veteran, has created interesting and memorable visuals; sad, lonely, Edward Hopper people, those who always seem to be out in the dark of night often, as here, in the rain. The joy for me was in watching the three actors, each of whom I’d seen before, stretching and creating and enriching their portfolio of performances. Brian d’Arcy James, about whom I wrote just a few weeks ago in Next to Normal,[Two Marriages..] in which he played (and sang) the most mature and responsible family man, here tugs at your heart as he makes you care about the lost soul he is creating this time. As the seasons go by, this still young actor becomes more and more centered so that now he owns the stage he walks upon, and you feel a star being born before you.
John Gallagher, Jr. a relative newcomer, broke hearts last season in Spring Awakening as he failed to connect with his generation in the musical version of Frank Wedekind’s play, by giving a performance that earned him a deserved Tony Award. A new haircut, a new suit of clothes, and a new arsenal of emotional equipment allows him to give us a young man groping his way through adolescence into manhood . Sadness here, but no suicide this time, and his “Kevin” is very different from his last outing as “Moritz”, but equally arresting. Jim Norton won a 2007 Olivier Award for The Seafarer in London, and repeated that extraordinary performance in New York earlier this season. Here he is back again, with that incredible voice, that marvelous face, and that chameleon-like talent that allows him to remind us of Jason Robards, Barry Fitzgerald and Barnard Hughes all rolled into one, with plenty of Jim Norton on top on which to put an original stamp. It’s such a pleasure to see three actors play with us, control us, make us react in any way they want. Which is why I was disappointed not to be allowed to see them playing with, and against, each other. I don’t ever become fully engaged with monologues, so I can’t recommend this as a satisfying play. But for those who appreciate masterful acting, get thee up to New York, to the Atlantic Theatre Company to see Port Authority, which has been extended through June 22.
Varied fare on my calendar – a vintage musical circa 1925, a revival of a Caryl Churchill play, and The Scottish Play in what I hear is an excitingly new production. I’ll fill you in next time. Until then, go to the theatre. I’ve always found it the most entertaining way to try to comprehend, and ultimately to enjoy the world in which we’re all stuck for a lifetime.
- DCTS Podcasts featuring Richard Seff:
- Interviews with and about John Kander, With Complete Kander
- Richard Seff: A Lifetime on Broadway Click here