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The Blue Room
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In case you're not aware what exactly The Blue Room is about besides the vastly over-hyped baring of Nicole Kidman's very attractive butt, a brief summary.
The play began life in 1897 as Arthur Schnitzler's dramatic expose of the decadence of his own Austrian society and since Schnitzler was a doctor, also as an exploration of syphilis. Schnitzler's title, Reigen ("round dance" or "roundelay") was much less cryptic than the current one. The way Schnitzler's worked out his rich in irony "roundelay" was to have ten characters of different ages and from different strata of society go through a round robin of sexual encounters, with each one reprising one partner from a previous scene. Because of its explicit content the play wasn't produced for twenty years and its printed version circulated only to the author's friends. It didn't make much of a stir until the 1950 French movie version, La Ronde.
This brings us to The Blue Room which serves as the title, the physical setting and a briefly sung song for David Hare's "freely adapted" version. Actually, having pulled out my little Dover copy of the original text (see Addendums and Links below) before going to see what Hare has wrought, I can assure you that he hasn't departed all that drastically from the original scheme of things. We have the same ten character daisy chain only they meet, make love and part in present-day London. The generic labels given all the characters have been appropriately updated so that the soldier is now a cab driver (which in a modern metropolis can be akin to soldiering) and the parlor maid has become an au pair. A character Schnitzler called the count has now been rather quaintly dubbed "Aristocrat" While Hare has added some nice dialogue, he's also kept much of Schnitzler's. The resulting mix of phrases from the turn of the century and its end is at times effective (Both the Schnitzler and Hare characters are concerned about health risks though the problems alluded to have changed and expanded). Often, however, it sounds out of synch; for example, the husband who's now identified as a politician sounds suspiciously old-style Euro male with his reference to "two types of women."
The Blue Room's most drastic change is the shift from a ten-actor play to a two-hander. This does indeed give Schnitzler's cynical view of sexual and social mores a new edge. When all these characters are played by two people there is the added implication that this cross-section of society is emotionally shaped with the same cookie cutter, making the outcome of their sexual encounters even more predictably stamped with a sense of disappointment and disillusionment.
Hare's pared down cast concept works well in the sense that the two stars tackle their multiple roles with enthusiasm and much skill. Miss Kidman is not just a pretty face with a Wow! shape, but an actor who can use voice and gestures as purposefully as her body. We do indeed get to know the body that's caused all the publicity and that most widely circulated ever "sheer theatrical viagra" pull quote We see even more of Mr. Glen's which isn't at all bad either. His full frontal nude cartwheel may seed a whole new wave of aerobics in the altogether. While the much talked about Kidman nudity is not frontal and comes and goes in a flash (and is dimly lit) there are, as the image at the top of this review indicates, plenty of generously revealing outfits throughout the one hundred intermissionless minutes. The costumes and hairdos of both actors are amazing less for what they do or don't reveal as for the speed with which they are donned, often right on stage. Most importantly, both actors slip comfortably into their characters' accents and personalities. They also are terrific comedians. If I had to pick out a standout character for each it would be her prostitute and his hypocritical politician -- but then again his playwright and her actress are hilarious too.
So much for the up side of this downsized adaptation. The scaled down cast and the move to present-day London (or a city remarkably like it) rob Schnitzler's play of much of its irony and mood, making for neither to topnotch Schnitzler or topnotch Hare.
Mark Thompson's thoroughly post modern floor-to-ceiling royal blue room is edged in a thin line of neon. Furnishings are minimalist -- a few set pieces rolled in and out as needed. It all perfectly fits these modern round dancers' tight abs, sushi eating sensibility. They would choke on the Viennese candied chestnuts and pastries that are dear to the hearts of Schnitzler's sexual adventurers
Sam Mendes the do-no-wrong artistic director of the trendiest warehouse in London-- The Donmar -- can't be faulted for not keeping Hare's couples moving along fast and seamlessly. The sexual acts are done in stylish blackouts accompanied by an electric buzzer. Sounding as it does like a bug zapper I couldn't help thinking of how these repetitious encounters seemed as dead as mosquitos trapped by these gadgets. Subtitles announce the duration of each clinch, from zero for the over-excited student (he gets a second chance and manages twenty-five minutes) to two hours and twenty minutes for the evenings most tense, drug-stimulated encounter. These announcements get the desired laughs from the audience but become gimmicky and tiresome before the last countdown.
Many movie buffs are likely to compare The Blue Room (unfavorably) to the 1950 French movie, La Ronde (see Addendums and Links below). However, even though it may be more a case of apples and oranges, a more apt comparison is to Michael John LaChiusa's wonderful and highly original musical Hello Again, the very best and most original La Ronde adaptation ever to hit the stage. In anticipation of seeing The Blue Room and also because this show featured the star of the new musical, Parade, Carolee Carmello, I recently reserved a viewing slot of this show at the Lincoln Center Performing Arts Library's taped archives Even watching it on a less than super clear video screen, LaChiusa's adaptation is in no danger of being eclipsed by Hare's non-musical "free form" take. Unlike Hare, La Chiusa did not lock himself into Schnitzler's era, but neither did he jump right into the present. Iinstead he time traveled gradually from old Vienna to the present thereby extending rather than narrowing Schnitzler's concept.
Should those of you unable to get a hold of a hype-heated ticket feel deprived?
Let me put it this way. The actors are far better than their publicity. The production is better than a media event. It is theater, but it is not great theater.
It's very much like the debate about whether Tom Wolfe's A Full Man is entertainment or literature. Norman Mailer and John Updike in denying it the literature tag have sent Mr. Wolfe laughing all the way to the bank and insured him a long stay at the top of the best seller list (see link). As Wolfe's book is an entertaining read but not a ground-breaking novel. The Blue Room is an entertaining night out at the theater. For ground-breaking theater, we hope that Mr. Hare, much as we admired his adaptation of Ivanov, will go back to digging into his own very original mind and leave the adaptations to those unable to write good plays like Skylight and Amy's View.