Friday, July 31, 2009

Breathing room

Nancy E. Carroll and Paula Plum only occasionally breathe life into The Breath of Life.

I had a dream. A dream about Gloucester Stage's season turning into a virtual Greatest Actress Smackdown this summer, following Karen Macdonald's brilliant performance in Last of the Red Hot Lovers, and the current turns by Paula Plum and Nancy E. Carroll in David Hare's The Breath of Life.

But alas, the dream is over, because the celebrated, cerebral Hare often leaves our local leading ladies high and dry - particularly in his first act - even though The Breath of Life was originally designed as a vehicle for those grande dames across the pond, Maggie Smith and Judi Dench. And who knows, perhaps those stars kept things moving, but I'm not sure how, because Hare seems to have forgotten to give this vehicle a working set of wheels.

Perhaps the problem lies in the essential contradiction at the heart of the piece. Hare is known for his cool dissections of political and moral failure, in which the political and the personal, we slowly realize, are all but impossible to tease apart; his outlook is unsparing, his voice tinged with wearily knowing acid. But how this approach could map to a high-brow matinee vehicle is a little hard to parse, and Hare certainly hasn't solved the problem. He gives us an intriguing set-up (long-time wife and long-time mistress finally meet, in a lonely cottage on the Isle of Wight), but rather than really dig into the specific conflicts of these characters, he spins yarns of generational decline and political irony that might have been lifted from any of his other plays (indeed, I felt a few were out-takes from Skylight or The Secret Rapture). Meanwhile the playwright lets drop - or perhaps drip is the better word - details of this pair's actual past at an almost irritatingly slow pace (and he barely bothers with anything like complicating action - to get us into slumber-party territory, for instance, lazy David simply has one character fall asleep for no reason).

Or perhaps the problem lies in Eric C. Engel's direction. Engel is know for his subtle work with local actresses - only this time maybe he got too subtle. Plum and Carroll are superb craftswomen, but neither has a high-voltage presence in repose, as it were, and Engel indulges Hare's theatrical reticence almost to a fault; he's going for mystery, we can tell, but what he gets is anomie.

Things look up, it's true, in the second act, when the implicitly-promised long, dark night of the generational soul finally begins to kick into gear, and Hare starts to limn a political metaphor for his two leading ladies. This doesn't quite count as dramatic conflict, but at least it's ideological conflict, and it's literate and intelligent, and skewers with deadpan skill the fatuous self-image of the Baby Boom (motto: "We left no loft uncoverted!"). And once they're given something to actually play, Carroll and Plum begin to bloom, and for a while Breath of Life seems to really breathe.

And perhaps that's enough. Certainly Hare shows us, yet again, that political theatre needn't descend into the nuttily surreal antics of so many "edgy" American authors to needle us with uncomfortable truths. Indeed, his political critiques - of American moral blindness, of an entire generation's insufferable self-indulgence - are all the more effective precisely because they are set in an utterly conventional theatrical frame. So even if The Breath of Life isn't always dramatically alive, at its best it's still a breath of political fresh air.

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