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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
If anyone were to put together a festival of plays suitable for a seminar entitled Monogamy: To Be or Not to Be, the just mentioned titles would no doubt head the list. The list should also include Peter Nichols' tragi-comic Passion Play (1981) currently being revived at the Minetta Lane Theatre.
Nichols' play, which also played previously on Broadway (in 1983, then titled Passion and starring Frank Langella), is still one of the more structurally original variations on the infidelity theme. Its a typical enough triangle -- a fifty-ish professional couple, he an art restorer and she a choral music teacher, have been comfortably married with children for twenty-five years when their marital apple cart turned upside down by a sexy young photographer who likes older men. The triangle takes on a new geometric shape, a pentagon, by way of two younger actors who represent the couple's more youthful and uninhibited selves. They act everything heretofore safely locked in that area Freud refers to as the Id. Another angle to this reconfigured triangle is added by the discarded wife of the young woman's last and recently deceased lover since it is she who reveals the young "common law widow's" current infidelity to the complacently unknowing wife.
Because Nichols' career has been distincly more low profile than Stoppard's and Pinter's (his most famous play is A Day in the Death of Joe Egg), this brand-new American production of Passion Play is particularly welcome. By brand-new I mean that this is a completely separate entity from last year's hit in London. Not having seen that production (nor the 1983 one) I can only judge this version on its own merits -- which are considerable. Director Elinor Renfield has assembled a cast that skillfully maneuvers the play's tricky semi-surreal structure on a visually appealing and symbolically apt set.
The tragi-comedy unfolds in a series of swiftly paced scenes, its mood eventually shifting from comic to tragic. In the opening Kate (Natacha Roi) is visiting James (Simon Jones) and Eleanor (Maureen Anderman) and, with James half asleep, there's little indication of any sexual hanky-panky in the making. The seeds for what's to come are nevertheless planted by Eleanor when she tells James that Kate finds him attractive. It is also Eleanor who persuades her husband to help Kate with a photo exhibit. This leads to lunch for two and the inevitable betrayal.
Jones is the very model of blandness and Anderman is poised and apparently unbothered by the creep of time. Their complacent coziness is a perfect foil for the alter egos who explode on stage as the marital schism widens. Jim, James' younger sexier vision of himself, is played with mischievous slyness by John Curless. The husky-voiced terrific Leslie Lyless is Nell who enters the picture as Eleanor is reading a love letter from James to Kate -- discovered and passed on to her by the sour Agnes (Lucy Martin making the most of a relatively minor part). Like Jim, Nell looks and acts nothing like her alter ego (though all four actors are dressed alike). Where Maureen is calm, Nell is ferocious. This double play device is a continuous Pandora's box of surprises and laugh and it's fascinating to watch Eleanor, James and their alter egos interact in various combinations -- a particularly hilarious moment shows Jim passionately caressing Kate even as the affair is supposedly over.
Natacha Roi is very much the independent, sexy seductress who prompts James, enthralled with the marvels of being a lover, to declare: "I enjoyed the newness of her. . . the danger. . .the new flavor helped me to savor the old one" (that "old one" a plea for Eleanor to accept his captain's paradise vision for a more joyful intimacy). Roi doesn't have as much to work with as Anderman and Jones since her character needs no alter ego and is not as fully written.
The director has blocked the dance between the real and phantom actors with enormous fluency and made effective use of four additional actors in various nonspeaking roles. Narelle Sissons' striking set supports Nichols' background and themes beautifully as do the periodic bursts of choral masterworks like Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" and Bach's "St. Matthew Passion." Three large gold frames, which serve as walls, dominate the stage. The "canvas" section of each frame accommodates a variety of images as needed (all evocative without being distracting -- except for some meaningless Rothko designs at the beginning of the second act). Peeking out between these giant frames are a number of large paintings (presumably damaged works which, like the marriage, need restoration). Adding to this frame-within-a-frame echo of the play's layer-within-layer emotional landscape is a wooden picture frame proscenium.
The second act does not quite rise to the pace and spark of the first. Some of Eleanor's suffering could use tightening. The attempt to tie the marital trauma to the implications of the title (an allusion to the medieval liturgical depictions of Christ's week of suffering) is less than a seamless fit -- the allusion is made concrete by a picture of the crucifixion which James is restoring and his ranting that the monogamous standards he and Eleanor have accepted were imposed by a restrictive religion. Some of this fall from dramatic grace makes the second act a bit disappointing but hardly a disaster -- especially not, given the fantastical finale (I would be a spoiler if I said more!).
Overall, this is a fine production that makes one sorry not to have seen more of Mr. Nichols' work. After twenty years, his device of having the two main characters played by two actors still has the power to amuse and surprise. The acts of betrayal he depicts remain red hot with deep pain and misery -- and so, beware, young lovers and old, this play may shake up your happily ever after certitude.
LINKS TO OTHER PLAYS MENTIONED
Passion Play (London production)
The Real Thing
Dinner With Friends