Sunday, February 21, 2010

I Can See Clearly Now the Rain is Gone

The other night I saw When the Rain Stops Falling by Andrew Bovell, directed by David Cromer, at the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre in Lincoln Center. Having seen Cromer’s Adding Machine: A Musical and Our Town, I’ve decided Mr. Cromer is a flawed genius. (The flaw was apparently shown in his choices for the Neil Simon plays that abruptly closed, but I didn’t witness them so cannot provide elucidation. Perhaps he works better in the smaller houses in which I’ve experienced his productions.)

I like the Newhouse. It’s a nice size; one cannot be too far from the stage to see or hear. Its rounded stage is three quarters surrounded by an audience on a steep rake up to Row H (where I sat). It’s tough to find a bad seat (unless the scenic design creates one – more on that later).

The playwright Andrew Bovell is no newcomer – he is a quite well known in Australia, having written many plays and several films – “Lantana” and “Strictly Ballroom” among them, and this year’s “Edge of Darkness.”

When the Rain Stops Falling” weaves and tangles lifelines through the space/time continuum. The play opens in the dark. The quiet is softly broken with creepy sounds. The noises increase in tempo and volume and clarify to a torrential rainstorm. The sound builds to a crescendo that explodes into light on a round playing space that revolves slowly. One man is in the center, a tall thin man in a worn suit, his white hair spiked in disarray, not fashion. He is terrified. Other people huddle under their umbrellas running across the playing area from different directions until finally the white-haired man screams, a woman falls, and a fish drops down from the sky.

Now that’s an opening.

Michael Siberry is Gabriel York in 2039. Fish is no longer available for the consumption of your standard human, so this gift from the skies is miraculous. The rain is ever present, most people live in poverty, and he ran out on his wife and son a good two decades before. The large fish that fell from the sky sits on the large table that will serve every character in every time period throughout the play. The suggested room also includes a coat rack and a small stove with a smaller cabinet attached to it, which contains soup bowls and spoons enough to serve the nine people who wander through time and space during the play. And no, the play is not science fiction. The future time in which the play starts and ends allows us to see the whole story and how these people’s lifelines connect and diverge and connect again.

Gabriel York tells us that fish is supposed to be quite good for you, and should be eaten two or three times a week. This is the first of many lines and phrases that will be echoed by linked characters throughout the play. He tells us of his mother and his stepfather Joe, the father he never knew (also named Gabriel), and his son, Andrew, who called just today to visit the father who deserted him many years ago. In preparation for his son’s visit, Gabriel scrubs and cleans his tiny apartment, but it appears to him just the same. So he paints it. Now it looks the same but white. Or off white. We’ll hear this again, too. In the past.

This story-telling is multilayered over different time periods in which we meet the same people, some played by different actors, at different parts of their lives. And sometimes they’re all onstage together, doing the same things, ordinary things, like eating soup. Fish soup, of course. The play runs a little under two hours (without an intermission, which probably would have been a confusing time), and is interesting throughout although it gets a bit bogged down in the middle. Perhaps when we have finally met everyone and just aren’t sure what to make of them.

We first see all the characters coming onto the stage in raincoats, shaking out their umbrellas. Each raincoat is hung on a rack, followed by each umbrella. Each character goes to the stove, ladles soup into a bowl, then sits at the table. Eventually all the characters are eating their soup in synch. Some of the characters are not dressed as the others – the Sixties characters are more formally dressed than those whose lives are in later times, but we otherwise didn’t know who these people were, or how, or if they were related. Each character rises after the Spartan meal, gathering raincoats and umbrellas, and departs. Scene changes are accomplished economically by the stage revolving to a different point, and different characters entering the space.

Throughout the play, in its various times and places, lightning flashes, thunder rumbles and roars. The atmosphere is reminiscent of a black-and-white filmed ghost story, but it’s not that. Or is it?

The two female characters are played by four actors depending upon in which year a particular part of the story takes place. Sometimes they’re onstage at the same time. This is an intriguing method, and the women were interesting creatures. Each actor had to believably be the younger or older version of another actor. In the 1960s we have Henry and Elizabeth Law in London, parents of Gabriel Law. By the end of the 20th century baby Gabriel has grown up without his dad, he and his mother still in London. His father left them years before, and disappeared in Australia. In Australia during the last quarter of the century lives Gabrielle York, whom Gabriel meets while searching for some trace of his father.

The two women who play Elizabeth don’t look alike but manage to resemble one another appropriately. Kate Blumberg is the younger, hopeful, energetic, and literary Elizabeth Law in the 1960s; Mary Beth Hurt’s Elizabeth is older, tired, fuzzy (is that her mind or the alcohol her son is sure she’s drinking), angry, and fully out of hope. These two performances make sense, one stems from the other, and both actors are marvelous.

Susan Pourfar is excellent as moody Gabrielle York at age 24, the girl Gabriel Law meets on his Australian quest. She is already rather broken, orphaned, with a brother whose early and mysterious death is a dark cloud that will never break away. She speaks of the area in Southern Australia where her brother died, the Coorong, as if it were that dreaded fairy tale place outside the castle walls where bogeymen roam. The Coorong. The word doubtless resonated deeply the several times this play was produced in Australia. Here, it makes me want to look it up and find out if it’s as spooky and frightening as Gabrielle makes it out to be.

In later scenes, I only realized Victoria Clark was an older Gabrielle because the Gabriel York (Siberry, remember) we met in the opening of the play talked about his stepfather Joe, who appears to be married to the second Gabrielle. Well, OK, that’s confusing. Ms. Clark’s Gabrielle bothered me, but I think the question goes to the playwright. She reached across the boundary of time and shouted at her younger self when we were watching Pourfar’s younger Gabrielle in a moment of indecision. This made a sort of sense, considering the older Gabrielle’s mental deterioration, but she was the only character to do so. Does the playwright imply that madness is not bounded by space or time?

The play began previews last week and has several weeks to opening, so I’m going to assume that my few quibbles with the cast will be resolved. That is, the two younger men in the cast: Gabriel Law, in England and Australia in the latter half of the 20th century, was played by Will Rogers. Mr. Rogers is unpolished, uncertain, and most certainly unBritish. This becomes pointed when he’s said to be speaking with an English accent. Whatever he’s speaking with, it’s not an English accent. This is quite forgivable if this major character was a three-dimensional human being instead of a tool for women to play off of – Mary Beth Hurt as his mother in England, and Susan Pourfar in Australia. I’m as uncertain as he – is this the playwright underwriting? The scenes are, after all, really about the women. That the play’s been produced multiple times in Australia over the past two years doesn’t altogether deny the possibility that Gabriel is not fully developed. Or is it Mr. Rogers?

Note about that uneven quality in the production – the allegedly English do not speak as if they’re English, but most of the Australians speak like Australians toning it down a bit for the American audience (at least to my untutored ear – an Australian will be required to make a determination). Accents are not the most important thing to me, but why have the Australians speaking Australian if the English aren’t particularly English?

The other younger man appears in only one scene, which we (or at least I) have anticipated since the first scene – Henry Vick as Andrew, the son of Gabriel York, was disappointingly weak. I do not expect Mr. Bovell to explicitly write what Andrew feels when he meets his father after several decades, but I do expect Mr.Vick to live it enough for me to sense it.

The other gentlemen, though, were excellent:
-- Richard Topol as Henry Law, father of Gabriel Law, the mysteriously missing father depending on what time period we’re in, is just marvelous. Quietly loving, repressed, hiding behind his fascination with weather and its effect on history. Perhaps because he’s not sure how to live in his present. Mr. Topol gives this troubled character shading and depth.
-- Rod McLachlan as Joe, the husband of Gabrielle and stepfather of her son Gabriel York, was hearty and soulful, sweet and loving, just as he is remembered by stepson Gabriel. Interestingly, although the London scenes were certainly not in chronological order, the distorted chronology of the Australian scenes with Joe did confuse me.
-- Michael Siberry as Gabriel York opens and closes the play. He’s so good I wondered from the beginning when I would see him again. In terms of story, particularly in the construction used here, the reappearance of Gabriel York must wait until the end. I just wished to have seen more of Mr. Siberry’s character because he is interesting as the point of convergence of all the characters we meet in the past, reflecting their choices, their actions, and inactions. And because Siberry is mesmerizing in an ordinary Joe kind of way.

This is not elementary storytelling. Backwards and forwards, forward and back, this play takes concentration and some openness on the part of the audience. The audience is rewarded by the end of the evening, when the play’s tangled strands came together and it all seemed perfectly clear. (To me, at least -- based on lobby conversations afterward, not to everyone.) What we learn by the end of the play is exactly why there’s a family tree in the program.

The setting by David Korins is almost perfect. A smaller circle revolved within (but well off center of) the revolving stage, rather like the revolution of planets and moons. The floor was, I believe, as multi-layered as the play in that the weather shone off of it. After the rain diminishes in the opening, puddles on the stage reflect a second view of Michael Siberry’s Gabriel Law. Later in the play, when it snowed in the Australian desert, we could see the frost and snow again in that floor. Wondrous.

My one quibble about the set: Although my view was fine, people in the first row (possibly the second as well) would occasionally have a moving coat rack obstructing their view as the slowly revolving stage changed its position.

The lightning and lighting were excellently designed by Tyler Micoleau, the sound and fury by Fitz Patton. The costumes for all time periods were on the mark as designed by Clint Ramos.

Earlier I said this is not science fiction, and it’s not. Science is required for science fiction, and no one’s deliberately traveling through time other than in the way each of us does in our own lives. The time crossing is more philosophical. By the end of the play, I wonder if this play is not, after all, a ghost story.

~ Molly Matera signing off. Gone are the dark clouds that made me blind. Gonna be a bright bright bright sun shiney day.

No comments:

Post a Comment