Program A: "The Hand of God," "A Lady of Letters" and " Bed Among the Lentils"
Program B: "Her Big Chance," "A Chip in the Sugar" and "Miss Fozzard Finds Her Feet"
by Les Gutman and Jerry Weinstein
Editors Note: Talking Heads consists of six monologues, with two programs of three monologues each being performed in repertory. The reviews for both programs can be found below. Because our two reviewers sequenced the programs in reverse order -- Jerry Weinstein saw Program B the day before Les Gutman saw Program A -- we've reversed the order as well.
PROGRAM B - Reviewed by Jerry Weinstein
In the solo one-act, language is all we have, that and the possibility of superlative acting.
In this program, Bennett seems to chide, if not wax nostalgic, an ignorance that is bliss.
Each of Bennett's plays begins with a whitewashed set and an easy chair. While his three leads face different periods of their lives, they each find themselves at crossroads. In another director's hands the sharp portraits might have come out wistful. In director Michael Engler's hands, even bittersweet is suffused with the sanguine.
"Her Big Chance" begins the night. As Leslie, Valerie Mahaffey is an ambitious actress in search of the ever elusive "Big Break." Truly, for Valerie, there are no small parts, only small actors. While our heroine sees herself a voracious reader, one gets the impression that it's innumerable Grisham's not Stephen Hawking, that she keeps at her bedside. Mahaffey imbues her Leslie with vulnerability. Even when she's unknowingly exploiting herself, thinking that her nude scene might reveal new layers of her character (despite the fact that she's an extra with one syllable of dialogue), we root for her happiness. If she's been hurt before, she's careful to side it aside, as though the unhappy memory were a sensible garment she was storing in the off-season. While "Chance" is far from indelible, it has its poignant moments, and Mahaffey plays dizzy without a false note, giving you hope that perhaps it's just an act, and that her Leslie will carpe diem when the moment takes center stage.
"A Chip in the Sugar" is a sour candy. Daniel Davis, recently Tony-nominated for David Hirson's breathtaking sendup of Hollywood, Wrong Mountain, and last seen in Tom Stoppard's The Invention of Love, is indelible. His Graham is the closeted caretaker of his elderly mother. During one of their constitutionals they meet Frank Turnbull, a suitor of hers - from some fifty years on. When mother rekindles her romance, Graham is left to his own devices. And he is at a loss. The piece has a great deal of economy - in short work Graham and Mum have had a reunion, where they each re-inscribe their devotion, but Graham's fealty is now less about co-dependency and more about co-existence. While the soliloquy written for him is superb, it still seems that he's choosing each word, and parsing them with care; he's that good a craftsman.
"Miss Fozzard Finds Her Feet" is a lovely showcase for the talents of Lynn Redgrave. Redgrave has been acting onstage for over forty years and, of late, and has had a renaissance in films, beginning with Gods and Monsters running up to this spring's release of David Cronenberg's Spider. On celluloid she's too often been asked to play severe, so it is a joy to watch her as a guileless shop clerk who, when her chiropodist retires, finds happy feet with her new specialist. Redgrave manages to play the ingénue as blissfully unaware of the purple hue of her afternoon sessions, as she ultimately comes into her own.
While there's nothing to prevent a contemporary staging of these plays, they have a decidedly 1950s postwar frisson. Wendall Harrington's terse projections instantly set the mood -they are an analogue to Bennett's spare text. This is an evening of candor and quiet reflection about three gentle souls who won't go quietly into the night.
PROGRAM A - Reviewed by Les Gutman
To Jerry's "language ... and the possibility of superb acting", I'd suggest adding direction that permits these solos to function internally and yet temperately relate to one another. Michael Engler's firm, clear hand can be commended for preventing this evening from devolving into the stabile affair one might imagine it becoming, and yet its visibility also deprives the actors of a frame from which they can escape, thus rendering the whole an exercise more in virtuosity than the sort of portraiture for which one might have hoped. Notwithstanding, this is a very polished and satisfying evening of theater.
In Program A, we visit three women, all British and all dowdy, some by choice, it would seem, and one by circumstance, it turns out.
In "The Hand of God," Celia (Barbara Wehle) is the proprietress of an antique shop. At first affording an amusing insider's take on the business -- the fear of clumsy patrons and the loathing of bargaining ones -- we soon discover that Celia's native analysis of objects -- she can't walk in a room without passing judgment of the provenance and value of every article in her eyesight -- extends to her assessment of people as well. In the end, she gets her comeuppance when she thinks she's overcharging a customer for a small drawing in an interesting frame, only to discover it's a Michaelangelo. Ms. Wehle is "spot-on".
Irene (Christine Ebersole) is a homebody armed with a pen and writing paper. (She hates being called by her Christian name -- only her mother could do that -- so let's refer to her by the less familiar Miss Ruddock.) In "A Lady Of Letters," the pen is a weapon -- she writes letters of complaint quite compulsively -- and though I suppose it would be far worse had her mother given her a gun instead of a pen, she makes quite a nuisance of herself, so much show that she ends up in prison. It doesn't help that, perched in her window, she's also the neighborhood snoop. (Overall, I think the term "officious intermeddler" is probably the best characterization.) This is the most entertaining of the program's trio of plays, and Ms. Ebersole is splendid, never granting her earnest subject even the slightest wink.
"Bed Among the Lentils" was the most anticipated of the three pieces, both because anything Kathleen Chalfant undertakes is, and because it is perhaps the best known of the monologues. (In the television version of Talking Heads on which these evenings are based, Ms. Chalfant's Susan was portrayed by Dame Maggie Smith.) Its subject is woven from a different cloth: stuck playing the role of a vicar's wife, she's the object of the sort of nebby women Celia and Miss Ruddock represent. She finds release from her straitjacket by means of alcohol and the Indian merchant from whom she acquires it (or, more particularly, from her enjoyment of his bed). I wish I could report that this act is worthy of its attraction, but it's not. It's the least smart of playwright Alan Bennett's works on this occasion, or at least it fails to afford Ms. Chalfant the best vehicle foe the display of her considerable talent.
There's more than a little irony in the snideness with which Bennett relates these stories. One can only wonder if, like many of his subjects, he's oblivious to it.
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