Sunday, August 28, 2005

same-night review of The Golden Age at ARt

The museum's burning, and you're alone in a room with a Van Gogh and a baby. Which do you save?
A.R. Gurney’s The Golden Age, however, makes the old chestnut harder to crack: What if the choice was between a precious artifact and, not an innocent child, but a damaged adult, one who’d had her chances and wasted them? Wouldn’t you be a bit more tempted then to save the masterwork from destruction?
In Gurney’s play, an ambitious young academic has located a reclusive grande dame who claims to have known just about everybody who was famous back in the Roaring ‘20s. She may or may not have a few lower-grade historical keepsakes along with one spectacular literary gem; but what she definitely does have is a granddaughter -- needy, aimless, escaping into alcohol. Can “Gram” string the young man along, using the granddaughter as bait and the specter of a long-lost manuscript as the ultimate prize? Is the young man so intent on that prize that he would stifle his own feelings and toy with others’?

As Tom, the ambitious scholar of American lit, Mathew Ahrens looks the part but overacts. He’s eager to make a major find, write a major book, get a major advance. But Ahrens’ eagerness strikes a high note early in the evening and never wavers from it. He’s so excited by every postcard or letter from the next famous author that Mrs. Hoyt claims to have known that he “has nowhere to go,” as actors say -- there’s no way to elevate the energy any higher, so everything’s delivered at the same pitch and intensity.
In fairness, Ahrens needs to deliver high-voltage performance -- to move along a talky play, and to demonstrate the passion that at least some folks have for artifacts from a bygone era. The women want love and affection (which is more understandable and accessible); the scholar is after the fame that comes from achieving historic preservation.
While there’s too much of skidding past the furniture and open-mouthed anguish in Ahrens’ interpretation every time names like Hemingway and Trotsky are broached, there’s also hope that over the course of the run, he’ll tone down the eagerness in places. Ahrens depicts an intelligent enough chap, but there’s too much of the puppy dog in his performance.
That creates an imbalance in the play’s predominant conflict: Since the grand old lady has all the life experience (and a more common desire -- to leave a legacy, to provide for a loved one) on her side, too much puppy-dog eagerness by the young man tilts the field too much to Isabel’s side.
Ann Whiteman, however, knows how to take command whenever the spotlight tilts in her direction. As Isabel Hastings Hoyt -- one of those three-name women whose moniker bespeaks past romances and present wealth -- Whiteman’s eyes narrow in command and glint whenever she feels the flirtatious mood descending upon her.
As with Daisy Buchanan in the Fitzgerald novel that Ahrens’ character salivates over, there needs to be money in Isabel’s voice -- and Whiteman pays off. She’s accustomed to being obeyed; she shifts into coquette mode automatically, even a half-century past her time; she knows how to tempt and seduce with an actress’ touch. For Gurney has plugged the plot hole about why a reclusive, elderly woman who (we find out) has reasons to dread memories of her past and anticipations of her future suddenly starts showing off for an uninvited guest. Why does the Miss Havisham of 1980 start elaborating so many name-dropping stories? Because she once was on the stage herself.
Whiteman plays the self-conscious artifice of the moment to the hilt: “I was on the stage, yes,” she murmurs to the young man who’s agape with admiration, “and I still am.” She exults and raises her arms, well, theatrically.
There’s a moment when the academic asks her why she doesn’t consider the ‘20s a golden age, and when director Michael Weaver (wisely) lets Whiteman hold sway at downstage front. Mrs. Hoyt proceeds to deliver a hymn of praise to all the people who make any glorious era possible -- the workers and laborers in all those unglamorous jobs that make glamor possible. Whiteman projects the passion of a woman who’s convinced that living, breathing people - their emotions and worries and aspirations -- are of far more worth than any promise of a letter that Sigmund Freud may or may not have penned. Late in the play, when her character is swooning over a Verdi aria, Whiteman’s performance hints at some of the wounded, commanding bravura that graced her portrayal of Maria Callas in Master Class at the Met some years ago. She’s just as dominating and impressive in this show.

As the granddaughter, Tessa Gregory is helped in her characterization by Lisa Caryl’s costumes -- a baggy beige sweater for her dowdy first appearance, a little black dress for when the ugly duckling goes out on a date, transforming into the swan in a ballet orchestrated by her grandmother to snare the handsome young prince. Gregory’s deep voice serves her well in different way -- awkward in the initial scenes, more self-assured once it’s clear that Gram’s plan is working.
John Hofland’s set, with its autumnal leaves and plain brownstone exterior, gives way to a living room n which everything (literally) is shrouded in mystery. Somehow the quirkiness of Isabel Hastings Hoyt is lost -- more gewgaws in the parlor, perhaps, or more glimpses of eccentricity in Kimberly Crawley’s furnishings -- might have conveyed more of Mrs. Hoyt’s alluring past.
Weaver keeps the blocking varied in this three-hander, though he hasn’t done enough to tone down the melodramatics of the second half of Gurney’s script or Ahrens’ sometimes frenzied manner. But then Whiteman’s performance makes up for such deficiencies.

In other words, come see ARt’s The Golden Age for Whiteman’s haughty, flirty performance, then stay for the mind-bending dilemma Gurney presents between a glorious but dead past and a mundane but very much alive present -- or, more precisely, between the desires of ambition (fame during this life) and the desire to leave a legacy (fame after one’s dead).
Actor’s Rep has kicked off its second season with a solid and thought-provoking production that lingers a little too long (2:10 after a late start and one intermission) to make its philosophical points. At least there’s a chance to take one of the cast members home with you after the show (wink, wink): Gus the cat, who makes a couple of cameo appearances, is being raffled off (tickets only $2!) for a couple of equally important causes: animal protection and theatrical protection.


At August 30, 2005 10:33 AM , Blogger Bobo the Theater Ho said...

Is there any chance that you are Cynthia White? Because I saw that you worked on York, and I respect your work so much, and still have memories of Dan K. in Emma's Child and other Ashland productions, and Bobo would just be so honored to have you notice him turning tricks in public here, as it were.

At August 31, 2005 9:20 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would like the reviewers in this town to STOP giving a synopsis of the plays in their reviews. Some comments about content are necessary, but do you have to spoil the joy of discovery for the rest of us?

At August 31, 2005 1:59 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

it is even worse when they review the play itself and not the performance

At August 31, 2005 2:38 PM , Blogger Bobo the Theater Ho said...

Ooh, I hate spoilers, too. I really try to avoid them, and I very much share your distaste for reviewers (esp. movie reviewers) who give away major plot points.
But I'm confused on this one. Other than possibly the line about Daisy Buchanan, which indirectly gives away a plot development (and then only if you think about it for awhile), where did I go wrong in The Golden Age review in terms of revealing too much plot?
Please specify, because I agree with you in principle but really don't see what I did wrong in this particular review.

At August 31, 2005 3:01 PM , Blogger Bobo the Theater Ho said...

re the anonymous at 1:59 pm comment:
Here I respectfully disagree, at least in part.

Certainly there's a distinction to be made between new and old plays.
It would be pointless, for example, to go on and on in a review about how bad Charley's Aunt or The Two Gents of Verona are -- because both are established in the repertoire and will be done for a long time yet. (Though even here, I think, a _paragraph (or two at most)_ about why we ought to give up a cherished old play in favor of newer, better ones _might_ be appropriate.
BUT ... if a script is brand-new or recent, a reviewer wouldn't be doing her job if she didn't at least include some discussion of the script's merits. Should other theater do this show or not? How does it fit in with recent trends in American theater? Does it (like Over the River and Through the Woods) show signs of being indestructible and likely to be produced for generations?

Still, I'm guilty as charged, and you make a good point.

I dislike Cats and The Fantasticks. I'm gonna say why every time. Now, to go on and on about how they are beneath my stratospheric hoity-toity standards and to take up _most_ of my review in doing so -- that'd be pretentious, and I've already spread my share of pretentiousness around. The vast majority of such a review, I agree, should be about the merits or demerits of that particular production: Well, here we are watching Cats for the 8th time, and Rum Tum Tugger was divine ...
But every time the old tried-and-true show is done, that's one less opportunity for a lesser-known script or brand-new show to be done.
It isn't that a steady diet of Oklahoma! and Arsenic and Old Lace is a sign of civilization's fall. I happen to like those shows. But when certain titles recur and it takes years to get productions of plays like Proof or Take Me Out done, it's a sign of a theater that's comfy.

Most people want comfy. _I_ want comfy when I channel-surf TV or go to a genre movie or read a spy novel.
But for the most part, I go to theater to get my assumptions changed, my hopes recharged, my debt to all those who went before us rekindled.
Theater shouldn't go after golf claps; it should leave you open-mouthed and wondering what you _really_ think.
It can't do that every time, I know. But we've got the proportions all wrong -- and we're short-changing what theater does best -- when 80 percent of the time is tried-and-true.

Bobo's two cents

At August 31, 2005 5:42 PM , Blogger Bobo the Theater Ho said...

Bobo received the following response to ARt's production of The Golden Age as an e-mail from a person active in Spokane theater circles, then edited it and published it here with that person's permission:

For me, The Golden Age (which was the working title of The Great Gatsby) wasn’t about the manuscript, or necessarily whether we value things from the past, or how we treat heritage, or even truth. It was a play about the relationship between one generation and the grandchildren of that generation. It was about a grandmother and granddaughter.

You talk very little about the granddaughter in your review, but I believe the play is _about_ her transformation. 

{The writer goes on to make the point that Virginia the granddaughter has lived a varied life and weathered a variety of disappointments -- but that we don't witness that in this production, and that ...}

As a matter of fact, I thought Tessa Gregory played Virginia more like Laura in Glass Menagerie than like the character as written. 

{The script shows that the granddaughter has "spunk" and some capacity for self-transformation, the writer notes. But where do such qualities come from? ...]

The script answers for us ... [Virginia's decisions are based on] ... what her grandmother “modeled” for her, what has been transmitted to her. So the most important scenes in the play should be between Isabel and Virginia. 

I also asked myself what I would have told the actors about how they change in each scene.  I came up with:  I would have asked each of them how they considered the manuscript in each scene.  Was it truly by that famous author, or not? Did it matter? How important was it? 

The static qualities of the play were not helped by a set which should have had a raised bedroom for Isabel, so she could command the scene as she descended the stairs, and allow Tom to look _up_ at her when sessions start; a more tilted couch and desk area so the confrontations could have more varied; a full removal of the sheets off the couch and chairs, and more pictures as the first act progresses, so we get to see the full impact of the golden age revealed in art ... and then of course the recovering of them before the last scene, or the stacking of them in the corner.

At September 01, 2005 11:26 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

most companies pick more traditional shows because they need them to survive that is the reality of it.
Try looking at these tried and true shows and see what that cast brought to it that may be new and exciting.

At September 01, 2005 8:11 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

By the end of the first paragraph of your review, the reader knows there is a long-lost manuscript, that the granddaughter has a drinking problem, that Gram is going to string the writer along and manipulate the relationships, and that he is going to have to choose between art and a human being. No, it wasn't a blatant synopsis, but combined with the comments about the date, granddaughter's transformation, and speculation over whether or not Gram is a liar, I knew the whole story. Sorry.


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