Richard Greenberg’s THE AMERICAN PLAN, reworked from its original 1990 presentation, one of his – what? – ten plays produced annually in New York, is a dreary, pretentiously over- and yet under-written “literate” affair with characters you care nothing about, meeting fates which are even less involving. As Eva Adler, an overbearing Jewish mother, Mercedes Ruehl hams it up mightily, relishing an accent reminiscent of some old Danny Kaye Germanic routine. Lightweight Kieran Campion is seriously overparted, playing Nick Lockridge (what a name from a ’30s movie!), a handsome young WASP, who descends upon Eva and her menage who live near a Catskills resort in 1960, charming them all but obviously concealing an agenda. (When he makes entrance, in swim trunks, showing off an impossibly perfect abdominal six-pack which nobody had in 1960, you first think, “Is this a Terrence McNally play?” followed by the hope that the actor has spent as much time working on his part as he has at the gym. Evidently, no.) Brenda Pressley appears as Eva’s black maid – yes, this is 2009 but liberal white New York playwrights – Greenberg, Tony Kushner (CAROLINE, OR CHANGE), Horton Foote (DIVIDING THE ESTATE) - still lovingly cling to their African American, oh-so forbearing domestic characters. Political correctness of course must be considered, so here we have Eva, in 1960, dubiously treating her maid as a complete equal and confidante, one who not only brings in the coffee tray but sits down and enjoys it with her. Austin Lysy actually gives the freshest performance, as a man from Nick’s checkered past, just as WASP, but – surprise! - gay in one of Greenberg’s now unsurprising, nigh-predictable efforts to effortfully instill a queer sexuality – who cares if it goes nowhere - as he did in his concurrent adaptation of PAL JOEY.
This insulated little group is full of disdain for the vulgarly bourgeois antics going on at the nearby tourist resort, but, given their arid snobbery and unjustified narcissism, you rather long to go join the fun – however boisterous – that’s happening across the lake.
In the central role of Lili, Eva’s neurotic, chimeric, over-protected daughter, Lily Rabe, despite a lot of sweat and a spectrally doomed voice, fails to make sense of this emptily histrionic writer’s conceit. To work at all, what was needed was an electrifying actress like the young Katharine Hepburn or, ideally, Julie Harris who, in MEMBER OF THE WEDDING, definitively caught quicksilver adolescent angst for all time. Rabe, who’s been working steadily since her Broadway debut in STEEL MAGNOLIAS (2005) happens to be the daughter of playwright David Rabe and actress Jill Clayburgh.
At Brooklyn Academy of Music, Sam Mendes has directed Tom Stoppard’s flat adaptation of Chekhov’s THE CHERRY ORCHARD in a style that matches Stoppard in its lack of dimension and flavor, as well as misguided attempts at updating the material. (Those crystal-clear, pithy old library edition adaptations of Chekhov and Ibsen work just fine, without any modern impositions.) And is it just me, or is anyone else heartily sick of these Chekhov stagings on bare stages, with a minimum of essential furniture (here dwarfish in size as in a children’s nursery – shallow, distracting gimmickry)? There is not so much as a single cherry blossom to suggest what this tragically impractical Russian family is irrevocably losing, although Mendes, always leaning towards obvious “cinematic” effects, piles on the intrusively moody muzak and the “chilling” sound of those precious trees being chopped down. There’s a big coup de theatre “dose of reality“ when the back wall of the set suddenly rises to reveal a lot of floodlit, disgruntled peasants in the midst of all this aristocratic languor, an effect Mendes already employed in his CABARET, except there they were concentration camp prisoners.
Cohesive ensemble acting, as so often happens in recent high-priced, major NY classical revivals is nonexistent in this production. (There was nothing here even approaching the jubilant everyone-on-the-same page energy of Red Bull Theater’s recent, magnificently satisfying production of Thomas Middleton’s Jacobean drama WOMEN BEWARE WOMEN, produced for a relative pittance.) Sinead Cusack makes an initially satisfying, elegant try at the feckless Mme. Ranevskaya, but her performance eventually dissolves into strenuously hollow large effects, doing nothing to erase the effect of Irene Worth in Andrei Serban’s luminous 1997 Lincoln Center production, perhaps the greatest stage performance I ever saw (with Meryl Streep as a slapstick Olive Oyl maid, who kept falling over her own tangled skirts). Indelible forever was that little run Worth made around the stage at the end, to memorize every detail of her beloved, lost home, just as Garbo so lovingly “memorized” that romantic room in QUEEN CHRISTINA.
As the politically idealistic eternal student Trofimov, Ethan Hawke gives the identical, grating, angry frat-boy performance he gave in Stoppard’s numbing, excruciatingly overblown THE COAST OF UTOPIA. As the slyly opportunistic Lopakhin, England’s “greatest actor of his generation” (as he has been described), Simon Russell Beale continues to elude me, performance-wise. I found him narcissistically over-the-top in Mendes’s 2003 presentations of TWELFTH NIGHT AND UNCLE VANYA and just as emptily self-involved here, like Charles Laughton as his self-indulgent worst. During his moment of triumph in which he divulges to Ranevskaya that he has bought her estate, he goes wild onstage, overturning a dozen chairs. It’s a hollowly flamboyant gesture and all I could feel was fear for poor Cusack lest one of them injure her. “I’ll pay for everything!” he announces before he staggers out (but, absurdly, nothing was broken). One moment said it all – when someone suddenly hits Lopakhin from the rear, Beale did a huge reaction of pain, but the problem was that it came about two seconds too late. Throw in Richard Easton’s hambone turn as a servant, Paul Jesson’s mistimed flamboyance as Ranevskaya’s pompous brother and Selina Cadell – the only cast member who attempts anything like a Russian accent and therefore seems completely misplaced – as a governess, who is both a lesbian and amateur magician, and you have one motley bucket of borscht.
The party who struck Beale in that aforementioned moment was Rebecca Hall in the role of the unwilling spinster, Varya. Through most of the play she acted rather robotically but suddenly came furiously to life in her final scenes, shrieking her head off to minimal actual effect. She happens to be the daughter of opera singer Maria Ewing (whom she resembles) and no less than Britain’s most eminent director, Sir Peter Hall. (In 2003, she played Rosalind in AS YOU LIKE IT at BAM in a production directed by her father, which I left, bored blind, at intermission.)
REBECCA HALL, IN ‘THE CHERRY ORCHARD’ (Photo by Joan Marcus)
Chekhov, of course, has become a modern-day staple of the repertoire, but what sins have recently been committed in his name! I am one of the very few who was not bowled over by the recent Ian Rickson Broadway production of THE SEAGULL, with another woefully ham-handed adaptation by that ever-employed hack, Christopher Hampton. Kristen Scott Thomas, who has given me so much onscreen pleasure, was an over-the-top, sheer annoyance as Arkadina, solely playing the surface text for a histrionically stage-hogging grande dame effect, and totally devoid of any alluring womanliness or heart. (Maggie Smith made the same mistake when she did PRIVATE LIVES, a part one would have thought perfect for her, in 1971.) Mackenzie Crook was wholly unappealing as her tortured son, Konstantin, and looked strangely older than her lover, Trigorin. In that role, Peter Sarsgaard was a disaster, almost laughably lightweight, despite an ostentatious beard grown to give an illusion of weighty depth. As if to fit in with the predominantly British cast, both he and Zoe Kazan, irritatingly abrasive as Masha, wound up absurdly sounding more veddy veddy Anglo than anyone else onstage. Kazan happens to be the granddaughter of that old HUAC informer, Elia, and her father is Nicholas, himself a writer/producer/director, while Mom is Robin Swicord, who also toils in these fields. (I met her last year, when she received a Lucille Lortel nomination for 100 SAINTS YOU SHOULD KNOW. She was chatting away to the press, while I spoke to her rather ignored boyfriend, Paul Dano, a lovely, modest guy who seemed genuinely touched by my admiration for his performance in THERE WILL BE BLOOD. He more than held his own against Daniel Day Lewis’ blood-and-thunder John Huston impersonation, giving a far superior performance. La Kazan noticed this sincerely unintentional “focus-pulling” and quickly snatched him away.)
ZOE KAZAN AND PAUL DANO (Photo by Walter McBride)
In the just-closed indefatigably unsatisfying Stephen Sondheim musical, ROAD SHOW (memorable for a single, affecting love song, “The Best Thing That Has Ever Happened”), about those flamboyant real estate honchos, the Mizner brothers, there was a casting conundrum. The role of the gay brother, Addison, was played by straight actor Alexander Gemignani, whose solid avuncularity was none too convincing. Michael Cerveris, who has evinced a real androgyny in past work, was cast as the straight brother, Wilson, and emerged as a vaccum.
I’ve enjoyed the handsome, heartily-voiced Gemignani, with his Etruscan eyes, in character roles such as in Sondheim’s SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE last year, as the Beadle in Sondheim’s SWEENEY TODD (2005), as John Hinckley in Sondheim’s ASSASSINS (2004), and as Stewpot in the 2004 Carnegie Hall production of SOUTH PACIFIC. But when he played Jean Valjean in LES MISERABLES (2006), at age 27, it was eminently obvious that he possessed neither the heft, range or, possibly, life experience for the role. A recent cabaret engagement at Birdland also indubitably proved that he is not ready for that particular performance form. Gemignani happens to be the son of musical director Paul Gemignani, Sondheim’s favorite.
ALEXANDER GEMIGNANI AND MICHAEL CERVERIS IN ‘ROAD SHOW’ (Photo by Joan Marcus)
Do we notice a pattern here, without even mentioning Meryl Streep’s two young actress daughters, Mamie and Grace Gummer, already garnering lots of work? It’s not enough that Mama grabs all the choice middle-aged roles (and you can bet she’s down for the film version of AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY): now her two girls will crowd the field for the ingenues. Then there’s Sam Waterston’s girl, Elisabeth (as dull as Dad), who played Hero to his Leonato in the Public Theater’s MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING in 2004. And, still very much with us, and often cast in whatever Meryl doesn’t feel like doing, is the ever-unexciting pair of Jennifer Ehle (spawn of the great Rosemary Harris) and Kate Burton (Richard’s girl).
Thank God for Martha Plimpton, daughter of actors Keith Carradine and Shelley Plimpton, who is not only possibly New York’s best young actress, but whose talent is a blessedly rare justification of entitled bloodline these days. After being the only real vibrant human being onstage in both A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM and THE COAST OF UTOPIA, she is now burning up the stage of the Roundabout as the ultimate tough showgirl, Gladys, in PAL JOEY.
MARTHA PLIMPTON, GIVING THE MOST JOYOUS PERFORMANCE ON BROADWAY IN ‘PAL JOEY’ (Photo by Joan Marcus)
For certain clans, acting is truly a family business, but I think it’s pretty obvious that there are probably more more-than-adequate name-sharing cobblers, dentists or even lawyers than there are truly inspired performers, whoever their forebears may be. I’ve spent so many deadening hours in the theater, itching to make my escape, because of the mediocrity happening on the stage. New York is filled with talent, although most nights on or Off Broadway you wouldn’t know it, because talent without a name – whether it’s a movie star’s or a movie star’s kid – often does not get the job. The call can be as simple as a producer of even an Off Off Off Broadway show thinking, “Well, she’s not the most gifted by far, but hey, her Mom is so-and-so, and we could get her to come to the opening and publicize the show that way!” And, once more, some unknown, gifted, hard-working actor, who’s given up everything but her very soul to come to New York and pursue her dream, who assiduously goes to classes and audition, is not given an even break.
Remember, for every Martha Plimpton, Jane Fonda, Josh Brolin, or Bryce Dallas Howard (a much better actress than her Dad, Ron Howard, is a director), there’s a dozen B.D. Davis Hymans. Remember her, Bette’s ungrateful daughter, who made her debut in Mama’s WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE, reading her few lines with an amateurishness rich in hilarity? Too bad she had to turn to writing.
BETTE DAVIS GAVE HER DAUGHTER, B.D., A FILM JOB (AND THIS WEDDING), IN EXCHANGE FOR A NASTY BOOK. HOW SHARPER THAN A SERPENT’S TOOTH….