Thursday, August 14, 2008

What I saw in Williamstown

Mark Harelik and Brooks Ashmanskas prepare to carve some ham in A Flea in Her Ear.

The partner unit and I spent last weekend out in the Berkshires, hopping among the museums and "cottages" before settling in Williamstown to take in the theatre festival, where Nicholas Martin landed after departing the Huntington. And the news is good from his premiere season - even my hosts at the charming Blackinton Manor (where you should stay if you're in the area, as it's lovely, and placed neatly between Williamstown and MassMOCA) had noticed a jump in the quality of the festival.

And no wonder - they were lucky enough to have caught the reprise of the Huntington production of She Loves Me, and had just been treated to a broad, but bright, rendition of Feydeau's A Flea in Her Ear. On the smaller Nikos stage I also caught the opening of a small-scaled but still compelling new play, Not Waving, by the promising Ellen Melaver. Three hits in one summer is nothing to sneaze at - indeed, they were almost enough to make me go back to catch David Storey's Home this weekend (but my wallet dissuaded me).

I'll comment briefly on Flea, even though it's already closed, as it did offer almost a textbook study of the pitfalls of Feydeau. Director John Rando painted with a broad brush, but the central male stars - Mark Harelik, Brooks Ashmanskas, David Pittu, and Carson Elrod - were able to slip from caricature to character and back like chameleons, and generally exuded just about the right air of exasperated propriety. Yes, Ashmanskas added his usual applique of physical clowning - but frankly, the precision of his schtick is always a kick, and was here also only the wrapper on an intriguingly perverse characterization. The leading women, Mia Barron and Kathryn Meisle, worked in a more staightforward mode of heightened naturalism, with strong, if not scene-stealing results. Alas, elsewhere there were gaps in the ensemble - both Tom McGowan and Debra Jo Rupp, TV stars with Broadway credits, worked in miniature, and weren't able to keep up with their co-stars (who were all natives of the living, breathing stage), and Feydeau is pretty democratic in his gags; everybody has to be in formation for the farce to really fly.

Yet I have to admit I've begun to wonder if Feydeau really does fly. Flea, which has better writing than most of his work (and was here translated with witty freedom by David Ives), as well as some genuine psychological insights, still falls victim to the same syndrome I've seen afflict every Feydeau farce I've ever seen: there's a fun build-up (here the opening scenes went swimmingly), and then a sense of anticlimax, and finally faint boredom, as the gears of the coincidental machine laid out in the first act go through their paces in the second. The lengthy "climax" of Flea - which takes place in a bordello outfitted with rotating beds - is hectic but slightly leaden, probably because the author pretty much dumps all the psychology of his characters and simply accelerates the pace of their games of hide-and-seek. Tellingly, he relies on look-a-likes for many of his jokes, only never dreams of exploring their character in the way that Shakespeare explores the psychologies of his twins. Instead the playwright keeps pounding out the same joke, over and over again (in itself a form of insanity): the first time the bed spins to reveal someone in their undies, it's funny - not so much the seventh time, or the seventeenth. A production's best bet is to either trim the sails of the ongoing mêlée, or carefully chart a descent from sneaky decorum to something near to madness. Only director Rando had set the performances at such a pitch from the outset that the cast really had nowhere to go. The academic literature would have you believe that Feydeau achieves some kind of anarchic, Freudian catharsis in the bathos he engineers (and apparently, from his program note, Ives does too), but all I can say is, somehow this version of anarchic bathos looks pretty bloody predictable.

Still, the show regained its footing in its final act, when it returns to something close to bourgeois reality (which in Alexander Dodge's set meant chintz, chandeliers, and pagodas of china - the bordello, meanwhile, was a gaping maw of vaginal pink). The machinery of farce receded slightly, and the actors had a little room to breathe, and they quickly won back my admiration. Would someone please cast Messrs. Harelik, Pittu, and Elrod in something in Boston as soon as possible? (It doesn't really matter what.)

This happy couple, Maria Dizzia and Nate Corddry, are secretly at sea in Not Waving.

Meanwhile, on the Nikos Stage, the Festival shifted gears to small-scale naturalism with Not Waving, by Ellen Melaver, which demonstrated (as other critics have also quipped) that even a day at the beach is really no day at the beach. Especially when said beach - here beautifully evoked by designer David Korins - has no lifeguard, and is known for a fierce riptide that recently drowned a man. Thus, perhaps, the title, derived from Stevie Smith's famous poem - you know, the one about the dead man who "was too far out all my life, and not waving but drowning" - a potent metaphor which the playwright teased out into variations on connection and disconnection, with the shadow of mortality playing over each.

Melaver's three couples - a mother and son, a husband and wife, and boyfriend and girlfriend - are each negotiating the currents of life, and facing major decisions - and each is putting up a brave show of contentment, security, what have you, in the face of some serious emotional undertows. But are they waving, or drowning? Can the young couple face another shot at pregnancy after two miscarriages? Can the teenaged couple weather their first bout of infidelity? Can the son convince himself (and his mother) that he's marrying for the right reasons?

The playwright teases out these issues with astute indirection, and at just about the right pace - what's more, she manages three convincing sets of voices, as each of her "couples" is from a different age and lifestyle. The script at first feels a bit cable-TV-light, in the manner of, say, Theresa Rebeck, but grows steadily more engrossing (and affecting) as it progresses. It helps that the show is so well cast, and acted with such convincing detail. The standouts are probably Maria Dizzia, as the wife quietly trying to survive the deepest of disappointments; Dashiell Eaves, as the son who doesn't realize his mother has actually transcended the issues he thinks bind them; Sarah Steele, as the rosy, sturdy young girl on the cusp of commitment; and Will Rogers as the goofy skaterboy who's far better at boarding than he is at talking to his girl (he builds a half-pipe rather than a castle in the sand). The rest of the cast is solid, if not perhaps quite as compelling. In what could count as the "lead" - the mother working through issues with her son - Harriet Harris offers a charming half-characterization: we see her immediately as the free spirit she has struggled to become, with little residue of the emotional control she once deployed against her offspring. This is of course a defensible strategy, but it leaves the early mother-son exchanges hanging in space (admittedly, conjuring the echo of the woman she once was would have been a trick). This single gap, along with a slightly contrived, affirmative ending, perhaps hold the play back from small-classic status, but aren't enough to to curb our enthusiasm for a more expansive work from Ms. Melaver. More, please.

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