The news that Broadway’s LA BETE was closing early on January 9, 2011, a month prior to its originally announced farewell of February 12, came as no big surprise. Despite generally favorable reviews by clueless critics, there was no fooling the public this time around. The show was an unmitigated, pretentious, overreaching bore, really nothing more than a fancy frame for the single most repulsive performance I have ever seen on any stage, that given by Mark Rylance.
Rylance was the longtime director of London’s Globe Theater, and an often inspired Shakespearean performer, but, in 2008 he came to Broadway in BOEING BOEING with a performance that was so over-the-top and self-indulgent, it made the most infuriatingly scenery chewing moments of Jerry Lewis and Tim Conway combined seem like models of understatement. People unacountably succumbed to his hamminess and went apeshit over him, leading to his winning the Tony Award for best male performance of the year.
This acclaim has doubtlessly encouraged Rylance to continue in this questionable vein and top the extremism of BOEING BOEING with auidence-grabbing tricks in LA BETE, starting with his excruciating 25-minute opening monologue that you pray will end and never ever does. One can only feel for his fellow actors – David Hyde Pierce, Joanna Lumley and Stephen Ouimette – who have to stand by like the most hapless straight men, having to endure this night after night. Hideously outfitted with false buck teeth that make him resemble James Franco’s cretin older brother, he shamelessly plays to the audience every second, spits food out at his castmates, and even, at one point, defecates onstage.
Charming. I have never wanted so badly to throw something at an actor onstage in my life, so loathesome did I find his unbridled cavortings, and fully realized how any tradition of rotten tomatoes could have started.
And then there’s the legendary Vanessa Redgrave in DRIVING MISS DAISY. Growing up in the 1960s, Redgrave was a mesmerizingly goddess-y figure for me on the screen and, from her sexily screwball performance in 1967’s MORGAN! and enigmatic Garbo-esque slinking about in BLOW-UP, her every appearance became an event to anticipate. There was her sensual, witty Guinevere in CAMELOT; her soaringly lyrical Nina in THE SEAGULL; full-scale biographical portrait of ISADORA (Duncan); tremulous (too weak, I thought) MARY, QUEEN OF SCOTS; breathtaking, heart-stopping Andromache in THE TROJAN WOMEN; inspired political fanaticism in JULIA; her boldly eccentric Agatha Christie in AGATHA; her wrenching work as a concentration camp victim in PLAYING FOR TIME, and her literary sexiness in PRICK UP YOUR EARS.
I caught her onstage, as well, and she was stunningly luminous in Ibsen’s rather trite THE LADY FROM THE SEA. She made initially rare and then increasingly frequent New York theater appearances after that, and it was in these, that I began to detect definite chinks in her “greatest living actress” armor. In ORPHEUS DESCENDING, she tried to outdo the memory of Anna Magnani in the part of Lady, by being so buffa Italiano that it hurt (and, incidentally, proved again that, when saddled with any foreign accent, she always tended to woefully overdo it). She did little else but pose glamorously in VITA AND VIRGINIA, as Vita Sackville-West, while Eileen Atkins did most of the actor’s heavy lifting as Virginia Woolf.
Redgrave’s Queen of the Nile in ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA was a strangely self-conscious and bloodless characterization in that tiresomely post-modern Public Theater production. You began to think by now that the lady had REALLY begun to believe her own press clippings and, as Euripides’ HECUBA at Brooklyn Academy of Music, she was nothing more than a self-indulgent bore. This feeling about her was only exacerbated by her Mary Tyrone in LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, an appallingly misconceived performance, full of narcissistic tricks in the place of real emotion, although it was said that she gave a completely different performance every night. (I couldn’t waste another four hours of my life revisiting this production to see if that was true.) Joan Didion’s THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING managed to rein in a lot of her excesses, she looked terrific (superbly accoutered by Ann Roth in models of what every woman over 50 should wear), but, be honest, weren’t any of us who saw it just glad to get through its marathon audience demands without too much pain?
And here she is now in DRIVING MISS DAISY and I can’t think of a role that could posibly be less suited to her, although obviously surefire from the viewpoint of craven commercial considerations (the sell-out play has just been extended). There was absolutely no reason to revive this middle-brow, bourgeoisie-pandering, self-congratulatory tripe, which won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize (and only proved once more how utterly worthless that dramatic award is). But what other play could provide a suitable vehicle for those two giant names – Redgrave and James Earl Jones – who’d consented to return to the Great (and in this case very) White Way?
I recently caught Metropolitan Theater’s estimable revival of UNCLE TOM’S CABIN, with its tearful glorification of the “Good Negro,” Uncle Tom, whose name alone became a shameful epithet of obsequiousness for generations. It only made me realize how, in some cases, stereotypes never go away, with Stowe’s then-radical and sincere, if rather saintly, conception of a completely decent black man, acceptable in the context of its time (1852) making an entirely unwelcome reappearance in Uhry’s 1988 work. It’s the kind of play that makes top-price paying Broadway theater-goers remember to treat their minority domestic help better (say, an extra $20 at holiday time), not all that removed from the effect of more so-called radical works like David Mamet’s stomach-turningly trite and calculated RACE, which goes out of its way to make viewers feel bad about their more “privileged” white selves for a couple of hours, watching all the racist invective being hurled around the stage, before going to dinner at Orso and then returning to the Upper East Side and Westchester.
James Earl Jones did what he could with the material, bringing his welcome, inescapable dignity and authority to the part, but I couldn’t help feeling that this unbelievably ultra-subservient role was so beneath him. Redgrave, on the other hand, was false from her very first onstage moments, standing with her great height and moving with queenly authority, as if she were playing Joan of Arc and not some Jewish Southern middle-class matron. Her Southern accent was, again, pretty dire – a strictly come-and-go affair – and, during the play’s more shattering moments, she had minimal vulnerability. And, then, at her character’s lowest ebb, her final, increasingly decrepit years, Redgrave did something so insanely, brazenly amateurish that all I could think of was the woeful state of affairs when a famous leading lady is given her total directorial head by cowed toadies surrounding her on a production.
To show Miss Daisy’s climactic decline into old age, Redgrave actually drew both of her lips over her teeth in a pathetic pantomime of toothlessness, like any precocious six-year-old imitating Grandma, and continued to act away, with all the resultant inauthenticity and risiblity that you’d expect such an aesthetic choice would engender.
Absolutely unbelievable, as were those tumultuous standing ovations at the curtain call.