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|A CurtainUp Review
If you go to see Stanley--as you should, if you don't want to miss one of the most stunningly staged and rivetingly acted plays of the Broadway season--get there a bit early. That way you'll have a chance to immerse yourself in the part museum, part painter' s studio set that envelops three sides of this Circle In the Square's horseshoe stage. You'll be doing exactly what Anthony Sher the star of this almost 3-hour staged biography does. As you take in the amazing set, he'll pop into your sight up on the second tier of the scaffold quietly dabbling away, as the real Stanley Spencer might have done. That's Stanley Spencer, in case you never heard of him, (as many Americans haven't), accused of pornography at one point in his career but eventually revered for the way he used his own small village of Cookham-on-Thames in Berkshire as inspiration for cubist-realist paintings of erotic subjects bathed in an aura of spirituality.
This religiosity is made much of in the play and underscored by the music of that most famous church musician of all time, J. S. Bach. But not to worry, this is not an esoteric tale of religious fervor, or a somber concert or art lecture disguised as a play. Like the recent movie, Leaving Picasso, Stanley focuses on the messy and complicated love life of the man Stanley Spencer who happened to be a gifted painter but a wacky, immature loser in his personal relationships. And as Stanley Spencer the painter successfully blended eroticism and spirituality and the Englishness of Cookham, so Anthony Sher successfully blends emotionally abusive womanizer and sexually sappy wimp visionary artist and hyper-active imp .
The egomaniacal pop-bio unfolds through a series of short exquisitely directed (by John Caird), and lit (by Peter Mumford) tableaus. Told chronologically --from 1920 when Spencer is an immature thirty something to 1959, just after he's become a kindly but still somewhat dotty knight--Mumford's always shifting lighting and Caird's clever use of the actors to more or less carry their own props and juxtaposition from what we see with what is said works like a panoramic mural unrolling before our eyes. One of my favorite examples of this organic staging was the scene where we see Stanley stock-still, his face a map of childish jealousy as he watches Hilda , (Deborah Findlay), fuss over their baby. As he petulantly exclaims that he can't get any work done, the light swiftly spotlights Patricia, (Anna Chancellor), reading Sigmund Freud's book. "Narcism," she reads, thus aptly summing up what we've just seen and what she clearly is. Stanley's jealousy of his own baby, by the way, is symbollically underscored by the baby pram filled with canvas and art supplies--the only children he's capable of nourishing.
Another unforgettable scene-into-scene moment, begins with Stanley telling his wife that he feels he's entitled to have another woman and she tells him to go if he must which sends him on a helter-skelter romp up and down the scaffolded area--like the nursery rhyme's eensy weensy spider going up and down the spout. but with a Bach chorale propelling the spidery little would-be adulterer up and down and up and down again.
Patricia Peers, (Anna Chancellor), the object of Stanley's extra-marital lust more than matches his self-absorption. As he feels he's entitled to more than one woman, (he actually talks about 20 as a nice number), she's convinced that she's entitled to have more than circumstance and a meager talent have provided. And so we have the village nerd, albeit a talented one, the wicked witch who would be the queen of the Bloomsbury set and the two victims of this tangle tale --Hilda, the wife, and Dorothy, (Selena Cadell), Patricia's lesbian lover and equally untalented painter. Both the loving Hilda and the monstrous Patricia are characters who could set off a feminist riot. Yet, as you're more fascinated than repelled by Stanley, you can only admire the actresses for their fine interpretations of these difficult roles. Ms. Findlay beautifully transcend the obvious image of the doormat wife. Ms. Cadell who is saddled with a stereotypical image of the mannish lesbian, is probably the most fully dimensional, sympathetic and understandable of the four key players. Her description of Spencer's art to a reporter, also shows her to be the most astute about his work: "He paints people trapped, as it were, in their own flesh, pinned down to this earth, and yet, they seek to soar and he makes that seem so very possible." The rest of the cast is just fine though I would have liked to see a bit more of the other painter, Augustus John. Which brings us what else I would have liked to have had more of and some things I could have happily dispensed with:
First and foremost, the play could use some truly poetic language and less high-toned talk about Stanley as God's intermediary. I could have also done with less of the trademark Pam Gems touches of vulgarity. The scene where Patricia spits at Stanley, for example, spends an undue amount of time on him rubbing that spittle into his sweater, bringing back memories of Gems' Piaf urinating on stage. Most importantly, the play could use a deeper insight into just what makes Stanley tick. It is saved from superficiality by the outstanding acting and stage craft to flesh out the characters and the strength of the artist's work. To my mind, the people who gave out the Olivier awards got it right three times in honoring the actors and the set and costume designer. But they should have given the fourth award to Caird and Mumford instead of Ms. Gems. Despite the above-mentioned shortcomings Stanley. has much to offer and we hope enough theater goers will respond to those pluses to turn the Circle in the Square's financial fortunes around. A full schedule would go far towards insuring this and it occurs to this reviewer that Mr. Mosher has a perfect opportunity to back up his innovative subscription plan with an innovative second production. As I watched Stanley, I found myself thinking several times about a highly professional student effort that I recently saw which not only deserves a larger audience but would fit the Circle's stage as perfectly as the current play. What I'm talking about is the recent NYU Tisch school sell-out of Mark Blitzstein's labor opera, The Cradle Will Rock. The Abe Burrows Theater stage, a more modest horseshoe stage, was encircled by historic posters and the director cleverly incorporated the show's rocky beginning into the prologue and epilogue. This thoroughly American story would be a grand opportunity for re-establishing the Circle's connection with the school.