Thursday, April 8, 2010

Red Runs Through It

About a month ago, I saw two plays in one week. I very much enjoyed the first, despite its flaws. But the second eclipsed it utterly. So, what to say?

In the first play, Martin McDonagh’s A Behanding in Spokane, the characters are sketched, then shaded, filled in, developed. Unfortunately Mr. McDonagh did not take the time to do the same for the story. This reminded me of … well, me.

Whether sketching or writing, I have trouble with composition, structure. I must revise, rewrite, reconsider. Redo, redo, redo. Cut my darling lines and phrases for the sake of the story, and redraw an entire piece because I started in the wrong place on the page. As you might imagine, this hurts even more in drawing than in writing.

In A Behanding in Spokane, McDonagh wrote enticing characters, funny, flawed people. This Irish-English playwright -- who swore off playwriting four years ago -- nonetheless created distinctly American people in a decidedly American place, as well as a lot of funny dialogue and monologues. However, all its parts do not sum to a complete play.

John Logan’s Red, on the other hand, achieves fascinating, colored, shaded, multi-dimensional character development and a coherent and cohesive story. It is a play with a beginning, a middle, and an end. This play is GORGEOUS.

McDonagh achieves Aristotle’s tenet of Unity of Time and Place. So, of course, do many sitcoms. Clearly Aristotle was limited in his expectations, since what McDonagh absolutely did not achieve was The Lieutenant of Inishmore.

Logan achieves Unity of Place. Time does not seem to exist, although two years go by in the telling of Red’s tale.

Scenic Design:
Scott Pask created a cheesy hotel room from the walls to the floor to the furnishings. The set, washed out but not clean, tells the story of the people. The ceiling is cracked and peeling, the wallpaper faded and tattered, and the house curtain that hid the set at the beginning, middle, and end of the play was the same -- faded and tattered and torn. A brilliant design by Pask.

On the other hand, Christopher Oram created an artist’s working studio. It seems so simple – canvases leaning on raw walls, a workbench, a working sink. But by using the actors to affect the change of scenes and times -- the actors moving huge canvases from back to front to over there, around the space – Oram and director Michael Grandage showed time passing, seasons turning. This use of the set pieces showed a relationship building, proving theatre a truly collaborative art form. The scenic design was not merely visual, it was an active participant in the telling the story of Rothko and “Art” in his time.

A Behanding in Spokane
The curtain rises on Christopher Walken as Carmichael. Unfortunately the audience applauds. Mr. Walken is not in need of applause just for showing up. He does a good job, although he does spend too much time facing away from the other characters and out to the audience – even occasionally facing the back wall.
Sam Rockwell is Mervyn, the hotel “receptionist” (he objects to the term), a speed freak, joe schmoe without much working in the brain pan. He’s remarkably funny. He has a monologue that actually stays in tune with the timing of the play, in front of that curtain that looks just like the hotel room, and it’s riveting. (Would it be riveting with a lesser actor? Only time in regional theatre will tell.)
Zoe Kazan plays Marilyn, tiny, dumb and clever. Kazan plays her alternately breathlessly and shrilly.
Marilyn’s gangly boyfriend Toby is ably played by Anthony Mackie. The pair are sad sack con artists and very funny. Unfortunately as I watched Mackie, whom I quite like, I thought of at least two other actors I’d be just as happy to see in the role.

Just two – Alfred Molina as Mark Rothko, and Eddie Redmayne as his assistant. I’ll see Molina in anything. He commands the stage effortlessly and he brings Rothko to life. You’ve probably never heard of Redmayne before, but that slight young man is Molina’s equal on the stage, which is saying quite a lot.
It’s a shorter list, but neither simpler nor lesser. These two actors blow away all the clouds in your mind, the roof of the theatre, anything that interferes with the audience’s total involvement in these men’s lives, thoughts, breaths, every moment.

Both plays are very well executed.

John Crowley directs McDonagh’s play as if he were the playwright’s soul mate, a twin. Nothing is off-key. The issue, in my mind, is the play itself. Could Crowley have directed “A Behanding in Spokane” so that I wouldn’t have noticed or cared about the drawbacks of the script? Possibly, yet… I doubt it. Crowley and McDonagh are in tune. It’s the play.

Michael Grandage directed “Red” seamlessly. Living in this play as much as seeing it, one might fairly wonder, “Was there a director?” Or did this magic just spring to life like Athena from the head of Zeus? Did the set (see above), the sound and words and actors and lights and everything just come to be without a guiding hand? Not to go Creationist on anyone, I doubt it. The script is fabulous, but even brilliant plays may not live up to their potential in lesser hands than Michael Grandage’s. His vision of this play clarifies and focuses it, he brings it forward, makes it three-dimensional. When I read a play that works, it “stands up” in my mind’s eye. Grandage makes this happen on stage at the Golden Theatre. The Donmar Warehouse gave Grandage two extraordinarily alive actors, a courageously imaginative script, a scenic design with total comprehension of Rothko’s physical reality, and “Red” appeared. Art, craft, skill, heart, passion, guts – these live in the production of “Red” on Broadway right now at the Golden Theatre, but only until June – don’t wait.

Both plays are about 90 minutes long without intermission. West 45th Street is very crowded between 9:30 and ten o’clock of late. I like 90-minute evenings. It’s not that I have a short attention span; I just find most secondnd acts to be padded with blather.

A Behanding in Spokane is not quite a play, although it is entertaining.

RED is riveting, wrenching, relentless, revelatory (I say this because no person or thing has ever made me want to sit in a museum to stare at a two-dimensional painting for hours on end – until “Red.”) And, the performances of those two men are truly astonishing.

~ Molly Matera, signing off. Thanks for stopping by.

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