Saturday, April 07, 2012

Hot Summer Fights - Was Spring and Other Desert Cities - Play Reviews

Was Spring - Tarragon Theatre Extra Space - Toronto, ON - *** (out of 5 stars)
Written and Directed by Daniel MacIvor
Runs until May 6th, 2012

Other Desert Cities - Booth Theatre - Broadway - New York City, NY - **** (out of 5 stars)
Written by Jon Robin Baitz, Directed by Joe Mantello

Daniel MacIvor's newest play Was Spring is a beautifully poetic look at three generations of women as they spar against one another as they recount to the audience (in some hilarious asides) their feelings of one another as they struggle to deal with life and a tragic event. Without giving too much away, the brilliancy in the details of the three women's performances, Clare Coulter as the cutesy and vulgar elder woman, Caroline Gillis as the snarky and embittered middle aged one, and Jessica Moss as the young hopeless romantic, made it easy to spot MacIvor's clever framing of the play. While the play has some beautiful, thoughtful and funny insights on women, life, and their struggles, the overall play doesn't become quite as powerful as the initial set up has prepared itself for, nor does it quite give the impact the three actresses seem to be delivering.

Clare Coulter as the older woman, and Jessica Moss as the young naive girl, give particularly strong and satisfying performances. Coulter's delivery of the sass and wit, with the touch of dreary resolve, captures your attention right from the start and she doesn't let the audience go until she calls for the lights at the end. The sparkle in her eye shows the years of living she's letting go, just as the two younger women remind her of the good times and the bad.

Jessica Moss (Fringe's Modern Love) blends a naive youthfulness with a decisive denial that keeps her on this side of the stupidity line, making her all the more adorable and believable. As she trades barbs with Gillis, but sticks to her sunny demeanor, her hope becomes our hope.

As a character study, MacIvor's new play is fascinating and curious, and while it is never boring, I found the play to sort of float away into a dreamlike memory. Hazy, with happy memories, but with the details blurred so that you couldn't remember. Despite a clean and highly effective simple set of reflective tinted glass and three chairs (by Kimberley Purtell), MacIvor's simplicity in his production may have oversimplified the effect and left the performances to overpower the play itself.

In Jon Robin Baitz's (Brothers and Sisters) new play Other Desert Cities, a simple tale is twisted into big drama as lies and more lies entangle a rich white family (are there really any other plays on Broadway?) where the grown kids confront their Republican parents on a dark tragedy in the family's past.

The whole story is slowly revealed to us after the lies some family members have told begin to unravel. One could see it as a lot of unnecessary drama created by the characters themselves to save face, with much ado about almost nothing, but Baitz twists it all up as we follow Brooke Wyeth's, the adult daughter, wrenching return as she tries to publicly deal with her side of a family tragedy by writing a revealing book, one that the rest of the family wants to bury. If only the parents told the truth from the beginning, or sooner, none of this drama would exist, but the Broadway cast works its astounding magic to create a believable and fascinating play.

Lead by Stockard Channing and Rachel Griffiths (now replaced by Elizabeth Marvel) as mother and daughter, it's a powerhouse of raw emotions that pour onto John Lee Beatty's beautiful desert home set. Stockard Channing (Six Degrees of Separation, The West Wing, Grease) is a hurricane of upper crust values as she vehemently defends decisions as she's backed into a corner by her daughter. Rachel Griffiths (Hilary and Jackie, Brothers & Sisters, Six Feet Under) is the liberal leaning daughter who still enjoys the luxury her conservative parents have provided her, and Griffiths slinks her way to point her buried anger towards her parents, justified or not, and Griffith's Brooke soon makes no apologies. The progression Griffith takes Brooke is so natural that you forgive a lot of the play that this drama is almost self created by these characters. (Yes I know a lot of drama is self created and there would be no stories otherwise, but this one seemed particularly so, and if it were any other actors, I probably would have screamed "just tell the truth").

Sitting on the sides is Brooke's aunt, who nudges Brooke to reveal the truth, all while always holding onto a drink glass. What easily could have been a caricature part, the side role for comic effect, is giving a full throttled no-holds-barred performance by Judith Light (Ugly Betty, Wit, Who's The Boss?). If you've only ever thought of Light as a lightweight performer on sitcoms, look again. Light is magnificent.

The men, Stacey Keach as Brooke's father, and Thomas Sadoski (now replaced by Matthew Risch) as Brooke's brother, give equally powerful performances and hold up toe to toe against the women on stage, but this play is really geared towards the three women, who overtake the beautifully lit house (lighting by Kenneth Posner).

While the two plays, Was Spring and Other Desert Cities, both written by men, aren't quite as great as they could have been, each has created three beautifully juicy roles for women. Allowing six superb actresses in Toronto and New York to fill those characters to such stunning and satisfying effect. Was Spring could have probably benefited from a plumper production to balance the simple and beautiful poetic prose and some of the stinging plain truths in the characters diatribes, but nonetheless, there's a nice calm to MacIvor's new show that you cannot dismiss. Baitz' Other Desert Cities has the plumper production and story thread that hides the simple story, but when you're distracted by the magnificent set, or the magnificent acting, I was willing to go with the narrative and simply let Griffiths, Light and Channing take me along for the sizzling night of familial fighting.

Was Spring Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.
Other Desert Cities Photos by Joan Marcus

Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com

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