Sunday, April 20, 2008

Jasmine Guy Syndrome

"The Country Girl" at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, April 11, 2008

It looked like a dream team: Frances McDormand, Morgan Freeman, Peter Gallagher under the able direction of Mike Nichols in a revival of Clifford Odets' 1950 classic backstage drama.

The piece certainly has pedigree. It won a Tony for Uta Hagen's Georgie in the original, and one for Jason Robards' Frank in the 1972 revival, not to mention the Oscar for Grace Kelly in the 1954 movie version. In its current outing on the Rialto, it seems that the third time is not the charm. I'll try to keep in mind that this was an early preview, but if a production is selling seats at full fare, they should be ready.

The story follows that of Frank Elgin (Mr. Freeman), an aging actor with a teeny, tiny drinking problem. He's playing a walk-on role in a new play when the director Bernie Dodds (Mr. Gallagher) loses his leading actor. Producer Phil Cook (Chip Zien) wants to call in a named star, but Bernie thinks Frank can finally make his mark, based on a performance Bernie saw Frank give 20 years before. Skeptical of his skills and ability to stay dry, Frank accepts the role after talking it over with his long-suffering wife Georgie (Ms. McDormand). Through painful rehearsals, difficulty learning lines, and a drinking relapse during the Boston tryout, Frank pulls through and is a triumph. The drama lies in Frank's obfuscation of his own reality, blaming Georgie and creating a fictitious backstory of insecurity and weakness for her to explain why he drinks and cannot leave her.

Of the three leads, Mr. Gallagher's Bernie comes off the most successfully. There were one or two line stumbles, but it could have been the result of others' stumbling with their own lines as the cause. Ms. McDormand has some great moments as well, but she also suffers from the real weakness in the cast, Mr. Freeman. In her scenes with Mr. Gallagher, the energy returns and their chemistry is quite good together.

The title of this post goes back to the preview I saw of Richard Greenberg's play, "The Violet Hour" at Manhattan Theatre club's inaugural performance at the Biltmore. In it, Ms. Guy played a Josephine Baker-like character. Every time she walked on, it was as if someone had suddenly vacuumed every bit of energy out of the building. She was replaced in her role during previews by Robin Miles, "due to illness" and did not return to the play.

Mr. Freeman suffers a similar fate, but not quite to the same painful result. His trademark sardonic delivery works for some scenes, but the role of Frank needs a significantly larger range of emotions. Perhaps it is art imitating life, or vice versa, but Mr. Freeman struggled frequently with lines, even using the wrong character names at times (for example, referring to Mr. Gallagher's character as Frank, and then corrected by Ms. McDormand). It's difficult to say what caused the lack of chemistry between him and Ms. McDormand, but I never saw any inkling of what drew, and kept, the two characters together.

I also have to question the color-blind casting here. Mr. Freeman is the only role cast with a "minority" similar to the recent revival of "Come Back, Little Sheba" with Epatha Merkerson. In her case, the argument could be made for casting as such without needing to address it in the text of the script. Here it only seems to add to the lack of chemistry found between Ms. McDormand and Mr. Freeman.

Tim Hatley's strongly skewed perspective sets reached back to a similar concept he used in "Private Lives" in 2002. Natasha Katz' lighting complemented nicely. Albert Wolsky's costumes were spot-on to the 1950 setting.

I'm not sure what Mr. Nichols might have done to improve the situation, other than recast Mr. Freeman. I can say for certain that he was still around during previews. There was a technical glitch during the change between scenes 2 and 3, resulting in about a 30 minute delay (broken winch). Mr. Nichols addressed the audience over the PA, thanking us for our patience and graciousness. Perhaps his closing comment summed things up: "If you have drugs, do them." He gets fine performances out of the rest of the cast and keeps things moving, but he just didn't seem able to reach Mr. Freeman.

Starwatch: Actor Sam Rockwell in the audience. (He's not very tall!)

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