The first ladies of the New York stage have been having a rough time of it of late. They have been finding rich and meaty roles in plays that come close, but don’t make it to the finish line. They offer employment, and we are grateful to them for that, but for total fulfillment we’ve had to wait.
Examples of recent near misses by some of our favorite actresses include Mary Louise Parker in Sharr White’s The Snow Geese, Tyne Daly in Terrence McNally’s Mothers and Sons, the venerable Estelle Parsons in Eric Kobler’s The Velocity of Autumn and Nina Ariadne in this season’s disappointment Tales from Red Vienna by David Grimm.
Mind you, all of these plays have merit, but each misses that final polish, the one that separates the also-rans from the front runners.
Now along comes Nicky Silvers’ latest, a new play called Too Much Sun, which offers the tasty Linda Lavin her best role since the one Silver wrote for her in The Lyons. Ms. Lavin left a juicy supporting role in Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities in order to tackle The Lyons and Mr. Silver’s way of saying ‘thank you’ was to write the star role of “Audrey Langham” for her this season.
He’s given her an opening monolog that is pure Silver, and pure gold. Lights up, and there she is – resplendent – as Medea no less, staggering her way through a tech rehearsal, hours before a first performance, losing her words, hating her costume, fighting her director, working her way up to a nervous breakdown and a flight from the stage, from the theatre, from her life. Blackout, and we are on the front deck of a sweet little summer house that her daughter and son-in-law inhabit, where she has landed, unannounced and now ensconced. It’s three days since she simply left Medea and her playmates behind, and where she’s decided to make a choice about the direction she wants her life to take. It’s a great beginning, and is loaded with comic and not so comic possibilities.
Nicky Silver can be counted on, as he’s proven in the past, not only with The Lyons which managed to turn a dying man’s hospital room into a house of mirth, but with a dozen other fresh comedies ranging from Pterodactyls to The Food Chain to a new book to Rodgers and Hart’s The Boys From Syracuse. He and Ms. Lavin are meant for each other, for he understands and feeds her innate sense of comic acting, and she delivers every ounce of humor from almost anything he writes.
This time out, he and she have probed more deeply than before, and there are moments that she, the colorful, solopsistic but fun Audrey Langham, must come to grips with matters that demand more than her witty dismissals and evasions. As the summer unfolds, as she remains a troublesome and unwelcome guest in her daughter’s home, a marriage unravels, a romance blossoms, a blunder leads to true tragedy — that’s all a lot of weight for a play about summer at the beach to carry, and to get it all in, to seduce us into buying into its conclusion, it doesn’t quite make it.
Silver writes with grace, so as each surprise presented itself, I reserved judgment. I may have been confused by some of the curves thrown, but I remained interested in these complex folks, and remained attracted to Audrey Langham even though her every line, her every action distanced her from me.
A bad mother, a terrible mother-in-law, an outrageous guest, a woman with five husbands behind her and a daughter who feels totally disconnected, these are not endearing credits. Somehow Lavin communicates with us, and as we learn more and more about her via good confrontational scenes with her family, and with a potential suitor of her own (a man who lives next door and is the father of a grown son who will also figure in the story), I found myself rooting for her, and satisfied that she will survive the mess to which she has brought herself, that she will survive and perhaps even find a way to at last be of use to her very neglected daughter.
Silver has written a dense play this time out, in which his small band of characters will each face major decisions that will affect the rest of their lives. I’m not certain that this small play, which starts so amusingly, can handle what would seem to be material more suited to Eugene O’Neill, but for theatre lovers who enjoy watching a good writer expand his horizon, to watch a good group of thorough professionals keep us laughing (Matt Dellapina as a young man determined to become a rabbi), keen our interest (Richard Bekins is totally convincing as a neighbor who is full of surprises), and witness a resourceful and radiant Linda Lavin who manages to artfully inject another of this season’s monster mothers into a layered and dark comedy of family life.
Too Much Sun is onstage through June 22, 2014 at the Vinyard Theatre, 108 East 15th Street (between Union Square East and Irving Place), NYC. Details and tickets
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).
Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.