Monday, January 28, 2008

Crimes of the Stage

"Crimes of the Heart" presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company at the Laura Pels Theatre, January 26, 2008

It is a shame that such a crime has been committed. I have always considered this Pulitzer Prize winning play by Beth Henley as effectively a bullet-proof event. For me, it's in a category with shows like Gurney's The Dining Room or Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance. One has to work pretty hard to mess it up. I remember seeing it produced twice in the same season by two community theatre groups in my home town of Columbia, SC in the 1980s. Both productions were excellent with completely different casts. It continues to be a strong standby for theatres needing a solid offering during any given season.

I was excited when I learned that the Roundabout was planning to put up a new production in their off Broadway space, combining the talents of Kathleen Turner, Sarah Paulson and Lily Rabe from the Williamstown Theatre Festival last summer.

I sat in disbelief, watching the evisceration of this dark comedy about three sisters from semi-rural Mississippi in a misguided attempt to combine Greek tragedy with 19Th century melodrama without the virtue of either. Director Kathleen Turner, who recently gave a delicious turn as Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has totally missed the point of southern Gothic humor.

Her accomplice in this crime is dialect coach Deborah Hecht. (Note to Ms. Hecht: Dropping the "r" at the end of a word does not sound southern, it sounds affected.) As an American by birth, and a Southerner by the grace of God (ok, it's a bit much, but I'm trying to make a point here) I'm continually offended by the number of horrendous southern accents I hear delivered by (supposedly) trained and coached actors. Up till now, the worst I've heard is that poor woman in the Daisy Mae BBQ television commercials here in New York. She now has been outdone by Ms. Paulson and Jennifer Dundas in their respective roles of Meg and Lenny McGrath. (Note to Ms. Hecht: There are very few southern women who sound like Vivien Leigh. The only ones who do are Scarlett O'Hara and Blanche Dubois. Neither of those characters are from Hazelhurst, Mississippi in the 1970s.)

But I digress...

For those of you who don't know the plot: The three McGrath sisters were raised by their grandparents after their father ran off, which was followed shortly by the suicide of their mother. Babe (Lily Rabe) (now 24), married at 18 to Zach, an older and now very successful and powerful attorney in the state, has shot him in the stomach ("I didn't like his looks.") and has just been released after her arrest. Lenny (Jennifer Dundas) turns 30 today, is the spinster with a shrunken ovary and a matching self-esteem who has been Old-Granddaddy's caretaker since Old-Grandmother died a few years ago. He's currently in the hospital after his last health event. Lenny has been sleeping on a cot in the kitchen of the family homestead to be available to him at night as his health has deteriorated. Meg (Sarah Paulson) (27) returns from Los Angeles where she has been unsuccessfully pursuing a singing career. She fled there 5 years before in the aftermath of Hurricane Camille, which she rode out at the Gulf shore with Doc Porter (Patch Darragh), whose leg was crushed during the storm ending his hopes for a medical career. Doc has since married a Yankee girl and has two "half-Yankee" children. The McGrath's cousin Chick (Jessica Stone), lives next door to Lenny and Old-Granddaddy. (Note to cast: "Old-Granddaddy" is spoken as one word. Otherwise, it sounds like each use of it is to remind the audience that he's an old man - that's not why it's written that way. It's his name as used by all his grandchildren.) Chick is a busy-body from the old school - a combination of Gladys Kravits from Bewitched and Sister-woman Mae from "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" but without the kindness. Chick has hired Barnette Lloyd (Chandler Williams) to represent Babe for the shooting as a favor to Barnette's mother.

As Lenny, Ms. Dundas gets the worst of the treatment. Even though her character mentions that she's losing her hair, that doesn't mean she doesn't know how to comb it. And her costume is inappropriate to the point of being miscast on its own (a long-sleeve polyester double-knit shirtwaist dress that couldn't have been a hand-me-down from anybody). She's on the verge of old-maid-hood, but here she looks and acts like she's turning 50 instead of 30. Her accent fails her, as does her director. Lenny does develop a spine during the course of the play, which results in chasing cousin Chick out of the house with a broom. If Lenny really had the opportunities to wail on Chick like Ms. Dundas did on Ms. Stone, Ms. Stone would still be lying on the stage bleeding. Instead, we got a bit of poorly staged running around the kitchen table.

Ms. Paulson is also poorly served with a truly tragic long blond wig. I can't believe that's where the Roundabout ran out of money. Otherwise, she looks great. Her Meg, however, lacks the raw sexuality that would lead her former inamorato astray, as well as the restless nature that drove her out of Mississippi in the first place. She seems perfectly content to be home, when that's the last place she ever wanted to see again.

Ms. Rabe's Babe is only slightly more successful with her accent, but is poorly directed. A woman, whether she married at 18 or not, who married a successful attorney would not fold her legs up under herself (like the oft-referred-to yellow cat) every time she sits down. One can be relatively certain that Babe has learned how to behave among polite society, and knows to display proper behavior, even among those to whom she is closest. This Babe is at times lifeless, which runs completely counter to her dialog. I also had to wonder why she and Meg had the same long blond hair. Though Ms. Rabe's is natural (which further pointed up Ms. Paulson's dreadful wig), it's out of character.

As Chick, Ms. Stone seems to be the only one in the cast who really gets the required matter-of-fact delivery style required for this play. Bossy and presumptuous, she still suffers too from the poor staging and direction.

Chander Williams, sadly, is totally miscast as the meek milquetoast Barnette. Mr. Williams' Barnette is a bantam rooster (putting quite the fine stretch on the chest of his dress shirt and the seat and thighs of his polyester gabardine pants, I might add). When he rhapsodizes about his "personal vendetta" against Babe's corrupt and abusive husband, one wonders why, instead of strutting around the kitchen with his arms folded back and bobbing his head, he hasn't just gone round to deliver the well-deserved punch in the nose to Zach. He certainly appears capable of such. (Note to Ms. Turner/Ms. Rubin: Barnette is supposed to be a geek, quite young and a bit on the awkward side.) This appearance also undercuts what should seem the tender beginnings of a new and unlikely relationship between Babe and Barnette. No wonder she remembers having sold him that pie a few years before - he's hot!

Mr. Darragh fares a bit better as Doc, solid and credible. He still looks good in those jeans, even with the semi-gimpy leg as Chick's lascivious once-over attests early in Act I. He also manages to avoid some of the leaden pace that pervades this production.

David Murin's costumes are, for the most part, uninspired. Seems that Lenny only owns the one dress which she apparently puts back on after going upstairs to get some sleep along with little old lady sandals (in October?). Ms. Rabe is left in a couple of unflattering shades of yellow (like her Mama's cat again, I suppose) and Ms. Paulson gets the joy of mismatched blues (royal and teal - I don't remember that from the 70s). Just because Chick describes the girls as the "trashy McGraths" doesn't mean they're color blind.

Natasha Katz' lighting gives no sense of time or its passing, whatsoever. The brightest spot of production values for the evening is Anna Louizos' aged kitchen set even though there's a particularly awkward placement of the sink, refrigerator and stove.

I hadn't remembered seeing any reviews from when Ms. Turner directed this play last year at Williamstown, but found the Variety review here. and another from here. Accounts of that production were excellent - not ground-breaking perhaps, but excellent nonetheless.

What happened to that show? It's the same cast with an improved budget in an excellent auditorium produced by a well-known and successful theatre company. Why did the pace of every scene feeling like pouring cold molasses? Why were transitions endless, as though they were place-holders for commercials? Why did the line deliveries feel like MacBeth? The well-known secret to playing comedy is to play it straight, not wring the life from it. Where was the subtlety? Where was the truth?

Where was Ms. Turner? Did she expect her work from last summer to revive itself?

I also found a quote from Ms. Turner from an interview she gave about the Williamstown Theatre run last summer. She refers to the night Ms. Henley attended a performance, "She was crying at the end," said Turner. "She said, 'I've forgotten how the play felt.' "

I can only imagine how she'd feel now.

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