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Art imitates death: Lili Taylor in WTF’s Landscape.

The Spy Who Came Out of the Closet
By Ralph Hamman

The Stillborn Lover
By Timothy Findley, directed by Martin Rabbett

Berkshire Theatre Festival, Stockbridge, Mass., through July 26

What makes the thrillers and espionage novels of Graham Greene and John Le Carré so valuable is the manner in which they interweave the profession of deception with the process by which one deceives oneself and the toll exacted. Their province of lies and secrets ultimately probes the dark sides of all human nature, often revealing grace notes of a humanity made all the more touching because it is flawed. One can be brought close to tears by the very restraint of Greene and Le Carré, but such secretions, or secret admissions, frequently evaporate at the ducts, leaving naught but a bittersweet trace. At their game they are peerless. The Third Man, The Quiet American, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy—well, you get the idea.

Add to this august company Timothy Findley, or at least this play by the Canadian author who died a year before he could witness its long overdue American premiere at the Berkshire Theatre Festival.

The last time Richard Chamberlain was at the BTF it was in The Shadow of Greatness, a stillborn play hardly worth his considerable talents. Now he is reborn in a vital play that should cast its worthy shadow long into the theater season. The Stillborn Lover has arrived in excellent health on the BTF’s main stage.

In it Chamberlain plays the title character, Harry Raymond, a Canadian diplomat who has been recalled from Moscow to a safe house overlooking the Ottawa River. Together with his wife, Marion, who is in the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, and his daughter, Diana, a lawyer, Harry is facing an uncertain threat in the wake of a murder ostensibly tied to him. A fearsome serenity permeates Michael Downs’ spare setting, which also transports us to flashbacks in Cairo and Nagasaki. It is abetted by Fabrice Kebour’s chill lighting and David Murin’s low-key costumes.

Deceptions suffuse this play in the most surprising of ways, beginning with the slow opening exposition that belies the complications that will develop and strike with unexpected force in the play’s compelling second act. It will not be giving too much away to say that the murder victim is a young Russian with whom Harry was intimately acquainted, that Harry is a deeply closeted homosexual, and that his homosexuality has made him a troublingly vulnerable target, diplomatic immunity notwithstanding. It is the quiet, civilized manner in which this information is revealed that gives the play its tension in the first act. To disclose any material of the second act would violate my critical immunity.

Director Martin Rabbett applies the menace with skill, deriving as much tension from an innocent-seeming runner in purple shorts as from the perfect etiquette of Harry’s friends. Moving the action back and forth in time and place with assurance, Rabbett maintains a steady build through accusations, threats and betrayals to Findley’s emotionally surprising and satisfying climax. His uniformly excellent cast keeps us anchored in each moment, from Jessica Walter’s determinedly escapist prattling to Lois Nettleton’s passionate protectiveness, from Keir Dullea’s glacial good manners to Kaleo Griffith’s just-shy-of-ambiguous poses, from Jennifer Van Dyck’s rigid defensiveness to Robert Emmet Lunney’s fluid inveigling.

As Harry’s interrogator, Superintendent Jackman, Lunney is hugely enjoyable as he invests every line and movement with a delicate balance of charm and danger. It’s the sort of performance, rife with subtext, that Trevor Howard could be counted on to give in films of the genre.

Finally, it all rests on Chamberlain’s shoulders as the diplomat who came into the cold, and he wears the role with as much elegance and comfort as he does his suits and sports jackets. Much has been made of Chamberlain’s recent disclosure of his own homosexuality, and doubtless the connection between his personal life and this role has helped inform his authoritative playing of it. But it should be acknowledged that Chamberlain meets the play on its own terms and puts himself and his experience fully in the service of Findley’s character. Dignified, eloquent, deeply moving, this is one of the highlights of a consummate actor’s brilliant career.

Dead on Arrival

Landscape of the Body
By John Guare, directed by Michael Greif

Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, Mass., through July 20

For some mysterious reason that he is unable to share with us, director Michael Greif saw fit to revive this play that is as dead as its subject, the beheaded son of a woman of uncertain repute. This is the sort of theater that strikes one as edgy and cool in one’s adolescence, but which one usually outgrows. The Williamstown Theatre Festival production offers scant evidence of either a landscape or a body, unless it is that of Sherie Rene Scott’s curvaceous singer, Rosalie, who offers periodic respite from Guare’s long-winded dialogue and lethargic plot.

Rosalie, also deceased, is the liveliest presence on Allen Moyer’s generally barren (and uninterestingly so) set. She exists in flashbacks and as the film-noir-like narrator of the hard luck story of her sister, Betty.

Betty, played with conviction by Lili Taylor, is a transplant from Bangor, Maine, who left Stephen King country with her teenage son, Bert, for the urban horrors of New York City. They seek an American dream of fame and money, but have to settle for obscurity and squalor, pretty much what we have to endure in this production. So uninvolving is their plight that one ends up counting the 240 bottles with messages in them that frame the stage or waiting for Kenneth Posner’s effective side lighting to caress Scott in her white dress.

Guare sprinkles the play with all matter of curiosities, but the result is an undigested mess that includes such things as references to Francois Truffaut’s film Small Change, a love-smitten ice-cream man of unstable mind, and a cross-dressing Cuban. The Cuban is played, poorly and inarticulately, by José Zuniga. The ice-cream man, played by Jonathan Fried, seems weird for the sake of it and is seldom as humorous as his name, Durwood Peach. The Truffaut film is a reminder of better entertainment.

With the exception of its final brief scene, the too-determinedly-odd tale of dysfunction that Guare spins is the sort of thing that Christopher Durang pulls off with much more panache and humor. The last scene, set in a lovely skyscape, features a gorgeously written monologue delivered poignantly by Scott. It may be the bait that hooked Greif to the play, but two minutes of rapture don’t justify more than two hours of torture. Barring that scene, one has the feeling that Guare’s take on a bizarrely cruel universe was expressed more forcefully in his charming one-act play, The Loveliest Afternoon of the Year.

Watching Taylor, one is aware of the tremendous amount of work that this normally captivating actor has done to learn this part and one feels the energy she is expending on it. But it is a thankless role that not even she can animate; one feels sorry to see her talents so squandered.

Besides Fried’s periodic success and Scott’s aforementioned contribution, only Kate Mara has a few clear, truthful moments as an amoral teen. Clarity is not, however, an attribute of Michael Gaston’s police captain.

Particularly distressing is the pervasive use of body microphones in a show in which only one person sings with a band accompaniment. Not that I approve of it for musical numbers, but to listen to the entire play flattened through speakers is maddening. If an actor can’t fill the Adams Memorial Theatre unassisted, he or she really doesn’t belong on stage. Perhaps Greif yearns for the bygone days of his hit, Rent, which proudly displayed its technology sprouting from the heads of its stars.

I don’t understand Greif’s continued presence at the WTF (and I am beginning to wonder about Guare’s). Landscape of the Body, Street Scene, The Seagull, parts of Tonight at 8:30, Once in a Lifetime—indeed, once, Therese Raquin, would have been enough.

—Ralph Hammann

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