Gotham Diary:
“It’s going to be a big hit.”
3 November 2011

At dinner, after the play, it occurred to me that one explanation for the audience’s oddly tepid response to Zoe Kazan’s We Live Here, which we had just seen, toward the end of its run, at MTC, might be that the playwright forced the material for two rather different plays into a comedy-drama that runs for about two hours with intermission. Regular theatre-goers are all too familiar with the kind of show that begins with an awkward but funny family reunion, steadily leaks laugh lines, and bumps to a stop in soap-opera recriminations. Whatever the name for this dramatic form, Kazan has composed an excellent exemplar; We Live Here is an admirably well-made play, especially for a debut. The characters are intriguing and their secrets, strategically revealed, always turn out to be slightly different from their foreshadowing. But theatregoers have arguably had enough of this sort of thing, and, after all (sad to say), the extraordinary cast featured only one big name. There is much to like in We Live Here, but most of the members of last night’s audience wasn’t in the mood to look for it on their own.

They might have been more enticed, as I say, had Zoe Kazan cleared her work of one of her two stories and expanded the surviving one — and then, gone back and done the opposite. (We might even have had a double show, like Alan Ayckbourn’s House and Garden, performend simultaneously in adjacent theatres, with some but not all of the characters running back and forth between the two productions.) One play would be about the inability of two “happily married parents” to cope with their gifted children, at least one of whom is depressive. This play would expand on the Greek-myths angle that Kazan worked rather well into her textures; it would tell us more about a Harvard classics professor (Mark Blum) who is dumb enough to name his twin daughters Althea (Jessica Collins) and Andromeda, and about his wife (Amy Irving) who, deeply uninterested in scholarship of any kind, thinks the names are cute. This play would be about tempting fate, and fate’s taking up the challenge with a vengeance.

The other play would be about the fraught relations between the daughters, and this play would have more room for the men in their lives, two very different men who never had the chance, in We Live Here, to stand up to one another. Sandy (Jeremy Shamos), Althea’s fiancé, is such a good man that his prospective mother-in-law finds him “a bit gay.” Daniel (Oscar Isaac) is, in contrast, the sexy boy next door who is totally bad news; he comes equipped with that engine of destruction, a motorcycle. Stripped of the parents’ presence, the recognition scene in which Allie learns that Daniel has moved in on her younger sister, Dinah (Betty Gilpin), now “all grown up,” might have been incandescent, and not the occasion for a stagy blackout.

In the alternative (to splitting her play in two), Kazan might have insisted on a, shall we say, more Greek setting, and not the sprawling, many-chambered family home that bore the impress of a recent upgrade from television sitcom to legitimate theatre. Especially not a set so loaded with visual distractions. John Lee Beatty’s work, as usual, we eloquent, but that’s the problem: it constituted a mini-essay on the play, such that there was no need for any acting by people. Aspiration — books aplenty, the tail end of a grand piano, an easel painter’s kit — floated uneasily above middlebrow inattentiveness to detail; the boxes from Crate & Barrel served as more than ostensible wedding presents, and a marionette operation, in which they contrived to open themselves when the bride wasn’t present, would not have been ineffective at scoring the playwright’s main points. (I complained to Kathleen that there was not a single crave-worthy object on the stage; although I did fall into unwilling fascination with a Civil-War era armchair composed of tapestry and carved wood.) And the doors! Aside from the front door (nicely used), there were two sets of interior glass-paned doors and two ponderous pocket doors, one of which was briefly closed, the other of which was presented in half, thrust out toward the audience. I had no idea how six actors could fill such a space, and it turned out that they couldn’t. The best scene — the fiancé, trying to loosen up his sister-in-law-to-be, so that he can paint her portrait, asks Dinah about the things that she likes, and Betty Gilpin delivers a thrilling monologue of despair, desire, and barely-contained madness that howls for full-length dramatic treatment — the best scene takes place in a small corner of the domestic barn, the rest of which is momentarily consigned, by lighting director Ben Stanton, to darkness.  

I’d vote for the divided play, and the one with the parents could keep the complicated set. Amy Irving, reminding me at every turn of Dianne Wiest, was not the monster mom that might have tempted her with histrionic possibilities, but, more effectively, a parent who has come to terms, more or less, with her failures — and she has you wondering if that’s really a good thing. There isn’t time for Mark Blum to do more than deliver, very ably, some telling remarks on Aristotle and hamartia while looking chastened by the gods. There was a good story there, about how the plodding classics scholar caught the vibrant beauty, and how perhaps the relationship, like many Olympian ones, ought perhaps not to have produced offspring. Jerry Shamos did a great job with the thankless nice-guy role, while Oscar Isaac squirmed and jiggled as if sex itself were going to rip out of him, Aliens-style. It was the sisters, however, who owned the show. Where had I seen Jessica Collins before? This hugely distracting question bothered me throughout the first act; it wasn’t until the intermission that I could read that she starred in the ill-fated serial drama, Rubicon. Happily, I could give her second-act flashback into sullen, slutty adolescence, a master turn, my individed attention. Betty Gilpin I was well-prepared to admire; her performance in That Face is one of my most pungent theatrical memories. She did not disappoint, to say the least. At the end, after an eternity of wary circling and fake smiles, she and Ms Collins demonstrated that only the two sisters could put an end to the family curse.

***

For weeks, I’ve been asking the nice people at Crawford Doyle for a copy of Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, and, for weeks, they’ve been telling me that the book hasn’t come out yet. I finally joked that, by the time the book was actually published, I’d have read most of it in reviews. Blue Nights is a slim, somewhat gnomic volume, as you would expect, and I knew that my joke wasn’t the exaggeration that it might be. But it was the review that I read at lunch, yesterday, right before heading over to the bookshop for the now-available memoir, that surprised me with an almost unimaginable anecdote from Didion’s daughter’s childhood, extracted by Mary-Kay Wilmers in the LRB. Here’s the original:

I recall taking her, when she was four or five, up the coast to Oxnard to see Nicholas and Alexandra. On the drive home from Oxnard she referred to the czar and czarina as “Nicky and Sunny,” and said, when asked how she liked the picture, “I think it’s going to be a big hit.”

It turns out that there’s quite a lot of this vaguely Mommie Dearest material in Blue Nights, this time presented by Mommie, and I wonder how long it will be before a hailstorm of denunciation befalls Joan Didion. Premature viewing of a traumatically wound-up family saga cannot be causally linked to the fatal infection (or whatever it was) that killed Quintana Roo Dunne Michael, two years after her marriage, in 2005. But what about the disagnosis of “borderline personality disorder”? I doubt that anything in Blue Nights is going to dim my ardor for the rippling sinews and snapping tendons of Joan Didion’s art. But. “when she was four or five”?