imitates death: Lili Taylor in WTF’s Landscape.
Spy Who Came Out of the Closet
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
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
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.
of the Body
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
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
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.