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A CurtainUp Review
Safe Harbor

Close, close all night
the lovers keep
They turn together
in their sleep,
close as two pages in a book
that read each other in the dark

--- from a poem included in A Safe Harbor

Amy Irving in<i> Safe Harbor </i>
Amy Irving in Safe Harbor
(Photo: James Leynse)
It's understandable that Marta Góes should find the poet Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) an interesting character for a play. After all, Góes grew up in the same moutainous area of Brazil that Bishop called home during her seventeen-year love affair with a woman named Lota de Macedo Soaresto, an architect who became involved in Brazil's politics.

It's also easy to see why Amy Irving was attracted enough to Góes' play to not only act in it but to produce it. She is herself a part-time resident of Brazil and the role of the Pulitzer Prize winning poet is a juicy one. A bit too juicy, perhaps for this biodrama would be a lot more interesting and less static if it were a two-hander instead of a solo play, so that we could get to know not only the poet but her beloved Lota.

Ms. Irving is even more beautiful than she was in her earlier stage and film career and her portrayal underscores her affinity for her subject. The play, which was a big hit in Brazil, is an accurate enough rendering of Bishop's years in Brazil which began in in 1951 when she interrupted a freighter trip to visit Lota and another woman whom she'd met in the States, only to wind up hospitalized with a severe asthma attack. There are also glimpses into her childhood to help us understand her alcoholism and how the Brazil years helped to alleviate the sense of rootlessness and isolation.

Director Richard Jay-Alexander (her director back when she appeared in Amadeus) has done his best to make this narrative stageworthy and avoid the stasis that is the common pitfall of this type of stage biography. However, except when we are actually allowed to hear some of Bishop's poems, even the luminous Ms. Irving can't keep A Safe Harbor from begging to be a more fully satisfying drama and to treat us to more than snippets of her poetry instead of the fuller rendering of one of her most famous poems, "One Art," which is used here to sum up her acceptance of the loss of Lota (The art of losing isn't hard to master/So many things seem filled with the intent/to be lost that their lost is no disaster).

Primary Stages and Mahega Productions (Ms. Irving's producing company) have gone all out to give this the look and feel of a full-featured production. Jeff Cowie's set has a backdrop on which a Brazilian map is projected. That back panel has two sliding sections that allow a variety of props to roll on and off the stage which has been fitted with a turntable. The map occasionally gives way to other projections by Zachary Borovay.

Irving is elegant looking but not showy in Ilona Somogyi's costumes and Paul Huntley's wig. Russell Champa's atmospheric lighting and Fitz Patton incidental music add to the production's assets.

It's too bad that the intricate and expensive set, ends up undermining instead of enriching the play. After a while the merry-go-round movement of furniture becomes repetitious. I found myself wishing the money spent on the scenery could have been invested in turning this into a two-hander giving Ms. Irving a real Lota to interact with which would have made the awkward introduction of the Kennedy assassination unnecessary.

Bishop produced short stories as well as poetry. and she did paint water colors as she does at one point in the play. Though she is one of our most honored poets, she didn't leave behind as large a collection as some of her colleagues and friends like Robert Lowell. Instead she worked on a small, spare scale, often spending years on a single poem. While many of her hundred or so poems have appeared in The New Yorker, she's not someone whose name rings an immediate bell with most theater goers as was evident from the comments I overheard while exiting the theater. If A Safe Harbor results in having people read or re-read some of her poems, then we owe Primary Stages and Amy Irving a bravo.

Playwright: Marta Góes
Translation by Mario Góes Julia Beirao and Amy Irving
Directed by Richard Jay-Alexander
Cast: Amy Irving
Set Design: Jeff Cowie
Costume Design: Ilona Somogyi
Lighting Design: Russell Champa
Original Music &Sound Design: Fitz Patton
Projections: Zachary Borovay
Running time: 85 minutes without an intermission
Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters or l 212-840-9705.
From 3/21/06 to 4/30/06; opening 3/30/06.
Tuesdays at 7pm, Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8pm, Saturday matinees at 2pm and Sunday matinees at 3pm.
Tickets: $60.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on March 25th press matinee
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