Monday, May 21, 2007


All You Need is a Chair (and Someone to Occupy It)

By Josh R
Minimalism is not the first word that comes to mind when the discussion turns to production values on Broadway. In an age when bigger is generally thought to be better, the only thing that is more overtaxed than a producer’s wallet is the theatrical flyspace required to accommodate the overabundance of scenery being shuttled in and out of view in most Broadway houses. Mary Poppins, which features a three-story replica of a Victorian mansion (as just one of its many set changes), may take this year’s prize for immoderate showmanship, but it’s hardly the only show in town which can be charged with pushing the limitations of stagecraft to the breaking point. Even straight plays are becoming increasingly elaborate affairs — if not for the miracles of modern engineering, offerings such as The Coast of Utopia might well collapse under the weight of their own lavishness. As the remodeled 42nd Street has begun to bear more than a passing resemblance to Disney World’s Main Street USA, so have the shows that sprout up around it begun to look more and more like overproduced theme park rides.

As if to flaunt conventional wisdom, the stage of The Booth Theatre, which plays host to Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, is virtually bare. Apart from a succession of gray-and-white scrims which fall away as the play progresses, a lone deck chair constitutes the only piece of scenery. Its occupant is Vanessa Redgrave. She, as it turns out, is more than enough to fill up the space — no additional element of spectacle is required.

Didion’s 2005 autobiographical memoir, which shot to the top of the best seller lists while reaping some of the best critical notices of the author’s long and distinguished career, might not seem like the most obvious source material for a Broadway play. In 2003, the author’s husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, died suddenly and unexpectedly of heart failure; six months later, the couple’s only child, their adult daughter Quintana, succumbed to a mysterious illness which had left her incapacitated for the better part of a year. While Didion struggled to make sense of these events, she found herself increasingly reliant on the “magical thinking” of the book’s title — equal parts rational and irrational thought — to make her grief manageable and keep devastation at bay. While intellect allowed her to process her losses, viewing them with something bordering on clinical detachment, her imagination conceived of extraordinary scenarios by which history could be reversed. This peculiar coping mechanism allowed her to be cognizant of her tragedy without fully accepting it — for as long as the magic continued to cast its spell.

Of course, not all spells are powerful enough to make the magical properties of prose translate from the page to the stage with all of their potency intact. Even if I’d approached The Year of Magical Thinking without the advance knowledge that it was based on a book — which I must confess to not having read — the cadence of its speech would have aroused my suspicion. What I suspect audiences are hearing is the unfiltered Didion, with minimal modification — her voice has a patently literary quality, which undoubtedly works to spellbinding effect on the page but doesn’t necessarily have the same kind of impact when communicated as spoken dialogue. The author’s command of language is clearly apparent throughout, and has an austere beauty that no one listening to it could possibly be insensible to — but when taken out of its bindings and recited aloud, it doesn’t quite gel as a work of theater. From start to finish, you have the sense that what you’re watching is a great read.

If the play itself doesn’t seem ideally suited to the medium, this is not a fault which is shared by its leading lady. Any production which the luminous Ms. Redgrave graces with her presence is enough to qualify it as an event, and The Year of Magical Thinking is no exception. This marks the third time I have seen her onstage — her Mary Tyrone in Robert Falls’ 2003 revival of Long Day’s Journey into Night stands as the greatest theater performance I’ve ever seen, on any stage, anywhere, and her subsequent turn in The Brooklyn Academy of Music’s production of Hecuba wasn’t too shabby, either. Not once, in any of these outings, have I ever caught her acting — she is seemingly incapable of anything false. Every emotion registers on her expressive face, as open and yielding as an artist’s canvas, while each gesture seems to contain a special meaning of its own. She breathes life into Didion’s prose and invests it with such resonance that she seems to alter the very space around her – the words may communicate steely intellectual control, the principle of mind of matter, but the actress is working from a place of pure feeling. The thinking is unmistakably Didion’s, but the magic is all Redgrave’s.

David Hare’s direction is unobtrusive to the point of invisibility — there’s not much in the way of blocking, and honestly, when you have a champion thoroughbred and a track on which to race her, what more is there to do than sit back and let her run? For as long as Vanessa Redgrave remains at the center of The Year of Magical Thinking, go and see the play. If she decides to decamp to greener pastures — and should the production continue in her absence — go and buy the book.

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Of course, my regrets about the many shows I've missed (and will continue to miss) has had Vanessa in Long Day's Journey near the top of that list.
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