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A CurtainUp Review
Play Yourself

by Les Gutman

I saw kisses. I was a little girl on the set and I asked my mother, I said, those people kissing do they love each other? My mother said no, it's all fake, that the kisses are make-believe and that often the people kissing not only hardly knew one another but more often than not found the other person revolting.

Ann Guilbert, Elizabeth Marvel and Marian Seldes
A. Guilbert, E. Marvel and M. Seldes (Photo: Joan Marcus)

In the season before last, Rattlestick Theatre brought us a festival of Harry Kondoleon's work. (The main attraction, a premiere of his last play, Saved or Destroyed, directed by Craig Lucas, was reviewed, and is linked below.) The final event in that festival was a reading of Play Yourself with a particularly enticing cast (Kathleen Chalfant, Martha Plimpton and Amy Sedaris). The play had never been produced in New York, although it had been seen fitfully in regional theaters including Arena Stage in DC where I was living at the time. Coincidentally, Jim Nicola, Artistic Director of New York Theatre Workshop, was at Arena at the time, and has been interested in producing it in New york since he arrived here.

That the confluence of interest and attraction to Kondoleon's work on the part of Messrs. Lucas and Nicola precipitated this full production may not be all that surprising; that they were able to assemble an even more enchanting cast to perform it, is. This may not be Kondoleon's greatest or most lucid play, but it has bountiful charms especially in the hands of its three spectacular women: Marian Seldes, Ann Guilbert and Elizabeth Marvel. It is alternatingly hilarious, poignant and, strewn with unfathomable detritus, dense -- repeating words I've used before: a "joyous, sloppy Kondoleon mess". Even with a resolution that seems undercooked, overly long and nonetheless contrived, Kondoleon manages to get his hands on the human condition, the play's hortatory title skewering our penchant for what's fake and false over what's real and true.

The vehicle for this examination is Jean (Seldes), once a minor film star (of the girl who stole the husband from the wife only to have him return variety), now aged, practically blind and cared-for by her daughter, Yvonne (Marvel). Jean has never been able to extricate her real self from her character and Yvonne, whose father has been MIA since the get-go, has reached maturity with all the baggage one would expect as the daughter of not the real Jean but her character: jaded, resentful and with an abject fear of intimacy. Into their lives comes Selma (Guilbert), a woman of Jean's age who is inexplicably obsessed with Jean -- to the point that she hopes she can learn to become her. But of course it's not the real Jean she wants to be, but the screen one, even then confounded between the actress and the character she plays.

When not scouring the planet for Jean-alia, Selma (whom Jean will rename Betty) works with "the hopeless". In this emdeavor, she is associated with a pseudo-religious leader known as Brother Harmon (Juan Carlox Hernandez), who will end up invited to Chez Jean as well. He, incidentally, is also a Jean aficionado.

One's inclination toward Harmon might lean toward the skeptical, but he turns out to be the only grounded character in sight; Selma, on the other hand, is not beyond a bit of artifice. From here, Kondoleon takes us on a bumpy ride in which Jean seeks hope and faith, Selma seeks Jean (or some impression thereof), Harmon seeks love and Yvonne just wants to be left be. She doesn't get her way; oddly enough, Kondoleon has opted to have all of them live happily ever after.

Craig Lucas directs lovingly (I'm not quite sure why) and inventively, underscoring the play's central theme and drawing out memorable performances from all three women. We've come to expect thrilling performances from Ms. Seldes, and this one is no exception: she not only communicates Jean's persona pristinely in both body language and voice, but she also mines the character for every drop of humor imaginable, whether it is the way she exhibits her near blindness or just how she pronounces the name "Selma". The fearlessness of Elizabeth Marvel is just about as predictable, but her flawlessly suppressed rage, perfectly calibrated and yet marvelously peculiar, is a revelation. But the biggest surprise in the cast is Ann Guilbert. Comically brilliant and dramatically perfect, she is equal parts small-town senior citizen, lost soul and menace to society. Having fallen off my radar screen after portraying Millie Helpern, the next-door neighbor on The Dick Van Dyke Show, Ms. Guilbert's return is a near-cosmic event. Two of her priceless scenes -- which for a variety of reasons I won't describe -- are worth the price of admission. Mr. Hernandez works hard in a part for which he seems less than perfectly cast, but can't get near the three women. He's stuck with the play's toughest dialogue and most incredible circumstances, and he never quite convinces us.

The small house John McDermott has designed for the show is quite apt, and yet is complicit in the play's real vs. artificial sensibility: just enough of its theatrical bones are left exposed to deprive us of any true verisimilitude. Ben Stanton's lighting has a similar effect -- changing abruptly as if on cue whenever the play's tone or degree of abstraction is altered. Catherine Zuber's costumes take a different path: they are spot-on whether evoking the wrappings of Jean's long-faded glory or Selma's aggressively anti-stylish mode.

Saved or Destroyed
Christmas on Mars

Play Yourself
by Harry Kondoleon
Directed by Craig Lucas

starring Ann Guilbert, Juan Carlos Hernandez, Elizabeth Marvel and Marian Seldes
Set design: John McDermott
Costume Design: Catherine Zuber
Lighting Design: Ben Stanton
Original Music and Sound Design: David Van Tieghen Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes with one intermission
A production of New York Theatre Workshop
Century Center for the Performing Arts, 111 East 15th Street (Union Sq./Irving Pl.)
Telephone (212) 239-6200
Opening July 10, 2002, closes August 4, 2002
TUES - SAT @8, SAT - SUN @2, SUN @7; $45-55
Reviewed by Les Gutman based on 7/9/02 performance

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