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Everywoman: Grant in The Heidi Chronicles.

Life Journey

By Ralph Hammann

The Heidi Chronicles

By Wendy Wasserstein, Directed by Maria Mileaf

Berkshire Theatre Festival, Stockbridge, Mass., through Sept. 2

 

One name: Kate Jennings Grant. She is the main reason you must see this extremely affecting production of Wendy Wasserstein’s deeply felt play. There are abundant other reasons, but Grant is delivering, or perhaps living, the performance of the year. There is little that comes close to matching her delicately considered moment-to-moment work, and I doubt anything can best it. This is not a hyperbolic love note to this actress; she really is that good.

Grant plays Heidi Holland, a brainy and beautiful single woman whose journey through life as a baby boomer is the engaging story chronicled. We travel with her from a college mixer in 1965 to mixed-up lecture slides in 1989 when she is on the art faculty at Columbia College. Along the way we meet her friends and loves who will help to sketch the changing times and social upheavals when America turned from Marcus Welby, M.D. to Seinfeld.

Well-chosen music from the differing time periods is nicely integrated into the play by sound designer Scott Stauffer, while David Lander’s precise lighting also aids in time transitions on Neil Patel’s versatile and dignified set. Janus Stefanowicz’ costumes beautifully establish place and time while revealing character.

However well-designed, though, plays of such episodic form can fail to engage us on a profound level because they often exist as mere snapshots of changing eras. This is not the case here; Wasserstein’s writing is illuminating and crafted so that the transitions seem utterly natural. But even such writing will fail in the theater if it is not played well. Here it is played to near perfection by a talented cast who support Grant with equally truthful work.

Christopher Corts, Patricia Buckley, Jenn Harris and Laura Heisler play multiple roles, clearly defining their different characters with economy and sufficient color to keep them from becoming mere sketches as can happen in such instances. All are excellent; Heisler (who appeared last summer at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Top Girls and Bus Stop) is extraordinary.

Lynn Hawley, familiar to BTF audiences, is well cast as Susan, one of Heidi’s close friends who will eventually show the downside to a successful career, a problem that asserts itself into the center of the play and Heidi’s own struggle. Wasserstein asks how it is possible to realize one’s full potential in one’s chosen work while also fulfilling the desire for a family and the need of a home. In Hawley’s sharply etched Susan, we see a person who, though good at heart, has lost something warm and personal on her career climb.

The two significant men in Heidi’s life are her closest and lifelong friends. Either one could have been her mate were it not for some cosmic joke or opposing need. As her lover Scoop Rosenbaum, Scott Lowell invests Scoop with the appropriate cockiness, but goes so far beyond that in the later part of the play that his grief at life decisions becomes our own. A moment where Lowell and Grant look with affection at a baby is so perfectly played that we taste the bittersweetness and share the burning in the eyes.

Tom Story is terrific as Peter Patrone, a homosexual pediatrician to whom Heidi may be even more spiritually connected. Eschewing all stereotypes and lampooning them when required, Story has an easy and endearing comic sense that seems especially close to Wasserstein’s own. As Maria Mileaf, the sensitive and knowing director of this production, quotes in her program note, Wasserstein felt that “the real reason for comedy is to hide the pain.”

That seems to me one of the simplest and most profound explanations for comedy. And somehow it escaped me to note that for all its trenchant observations of life, The Heidi Chronicles is at its core a brilliant comedy. It just also happens to be a very realistic one.

But again, it’s the human drama that compels, and none is so compelling as Grant, whose physical changes in the role rea subtly achieved with a cool poise that must belie the madness backstage as she does quick costume changes. Her accomplishment is so much more than costumes and hair, of course. To watch Grant’s gradual inner growth as Heidi is theatrical magic. By the end of the play, we feel that we have experienced an entire slice of the life of a real person, and that may be the supreme accomplishment of this actress whose pure sensuality is matched by her quick intellect and genuine soulfulness.

The performance is a tribute to not only Wasserstein’s seemingly autobiographical writing, but to the recently deceased author herself. As long as there are such actresses as Grant and such productions as this lovingly crafted one, Wasserstein’s voice will have a degree of immortality.

The Comedy Works Double, Double

By Rick Elice & Roger Rees, directed by Roger Rees

Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, Mass., through Aug. 17

Roger Rees bet the farm on this one.

When it was announced that Rees would direct his own play as a main-stage offering in only his second year as artistic director at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, it was practically an invitation for people to raise concerns of him being self-serving. Thus, it was with a mixture of dread and morbid curiosity that I entered the theater to see what is being billed as a comedy thriller. I really didn’t want to write another bad review of the WTF because, contrary to some claims, I do like Rees—even if I loathed WTF productions of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes (which he also directed) and Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth.

Hopes lifted on seeing Neil Patel’s very smart set for Double, Double in which art deco is at amicable war with tribal art, resulting in a lofty elegance that foreshadows something darker. It appears that Patel has used elements of the recent Romeo and Juliet to create his own set where posh mingles dynamically with austere; if so, it’s admirable recycling with the reused pieces doubling nicely in their new roles.

As it turns out, Rees keeps the farm, but with one caveat: If the preceding three paragraphs created any suspense, it is probably equal to the amount of suspense or thrills generated by the entire first act and a major portion of the second. The few modest thrills provided are mostly psychological-intellectual in nature.

Regarding thrills, Double, Double is substandard, but it does provide laughter. The play is more a puzzler of what is actually going on with a light comic element continually defusing any sense of danger. Possibly it is better described as a comedy noir. It is not as if we are presented with a great mystery to be solved in the first two-thirds of the play, but there is a fair amount of intrigue to see how the characters are going to pull off a subterfuge that will make them rich.

Given that it does resolve itself with a clever, even shocking, ending preceded by a wonderfully staged bit of physical mayhem, it would be unfair to give anything away. Suffice to say that it begins with the very proper-seeming Phillipa James bringing home a street person, Duncan McFee, for the purpose of impersonating her recently deceased husband. It may require that audiences suspend a fair amount of disbelief, but even Hitchcock (who loved doubles themes) required that from time to time. The trick, he said, was in making everything happen so fast that the audience doesn’t notice.

If the script has its deficiencies, the production does not, and it moves so briskly and assuredly that we happily give ourselves over to Rees’ carefully wrought direction, his finest here since The Film Society and The Rivals. Not only does Rees run a tight ship (anything doesn’t go here) where all scenes are perfectly paced, and all technical concerns sail through without a hitch, but he also nurtures two terrific performances that sweep us away.

Lovely Jennifer Van Dyke, as Phillipa, endows her character’s every change with enough conviction to lead us wherever she wills, and her emotional twists and turns in the final scenes are riveting. The showier role, however, belongs to Matt Letscher as Duncan; he’s an extraordinarily gifted young actor with great range and flexibility. With a fresh, natural comic sense, he so embroiders the lines as to make them even funnier, and he is equally adept at romance and gravitas. His character, particularly after a Shavian shave and re-creation (think Pygmalion), is totally engaging.

With Van Dyke and Letscher’s prickling interplay, Rees’ crackling direction and Charles Foster’s subtle lighting, this is by far the most accomplished piece of the WTF season. If you’ve strayed away, it’s time to return, double-time.

—Ralph Hammann


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