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A CurtainUp Review
Vita and Virginia

What I want of you is illusion, to make the world Dance —Virginia
Vita & Virginia
Kathleen Chalfant and Patricia Elliot
Eileen Atkins originally wrote Vita and Virginia for herself and Vanessa Redgrave. However, like her A Room of Her Own, a solo drama adapted from a Virginia Woolf lecture, this epistolary two-hander has proved to be a nice nest egg featherer for Ms. Atkins — and a bravura acting opportunity for other actresses portraying its passionate friends and correspondents, Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West.

The No Frills Company's production booked for twelve Monday nights at the Zipper factory has found two charming and strong on interpersonal chemistry stars in Kathleen Chalfant and Patricia Elliott. And the Zipper theater is small enough to support the play's intimacy, but large enough to accommodate the audience drawn in by the appeal of seeing two superb actors for a modestly priced ticket.

The packed performance I attended was my third encounter with this play. The first time should have been wonderful since it featured Atkins and Redgrave. However, the 500-seat Union Square Theatre was too large for this delicate work and the director too often positioned the actors with their backs to the audience so that many of the witty mots got lost to all but those sitting really close to the stage. My next Vita and Virginia was a regional production five years ago at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox. The theater, a mansion then used as a second stage, couldn't have been more intimate and the two actresses, while not known to New York theater goers, brought the same warmth and wit to their performances as Chalfant and Elliott do now.

Atkins forged this piece from actual correspondence between Woolf and Sackville-West. The women never meet, but the correspondence is structured so that they appear to be talking directly to each other.

The production as directed by Pamela Berlin is basically a staged reading. Chalfant and Elliott work with scripts in hand. Chalfant seems to be more dependent on that script which is understandable since these performances are on her day off from Dead Man's Cell Phone at Playwright's Horizon. At any rate, it's easy to view those scripts as letters, and while they spend much of the two hours with their scripts on music stands, there's just enough furniture (a chair and a little table with books for each) to give a sense that they're navigating between pages of their letters and personal meetings. In short, what we have is a living, breathing friendship that happens to be nurtured by written exchanges.

The fact that the letter writers are two extraordinary and quite different women makes for dialogue that is richly entertaining and covers a wide range of subjects: Woolf describes good writing style as a matter of rhythm ("Once you have rhythm, you can't use the wrong word"). Friendship and intimacy are covered with Virginia stating that a letter from Vita brought her a great deal of pain and adding "I have no doubt is the first stage of intimacy.". Passion rears its head via Virginia's jealousy of Vita's relationships with other women. Time is also spent on Virginia's novel about Vita who admits to "the ultimate act of narcisim" —falling in love with her alter-ego, Orlando. And what women's friendship can omit talk about clothes? Though fashion holds little interest for Virginia she tells Vita that she thinks she should get a black broadcloth coat for a broadcast she's been asked to do, upon which the stylish Vita advices her to forget broadcloth and get velvet.

While Sackville-West was actually more famous when the women first met, audience members are more likely to have read some of Woolf's essays and novels and be familiar with details of her life. At any rate, the script is not loaded with ambiguities so that an in-depth acquaintance with either woman's work and life isn't necessary to enjoy watching and listening to Chalfant and Elliott. I would have liked to see Pamela Berlin take a cue from Shakespeare & Company's astute use of sight and sound effects to accompany the letters describing Vita's trip through America, the sound of the bombings and Woolf's suicide. But this more straightforward directing doesn't take away from the pleasure of spending time with these two pros.

If there's one downside to a play like this is that literary letter exchanges have probably joined other dinosaurs of another time. I can't imagine Vita and Virginia e-mailing, can you?

Link: Vita and Virginia- Shakespeare & Co

A play by Eileen Atkins adapted from the correspondence between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West.
Directed by Pamela Berlin
Starring Kathleen Chalfant and Patricia Elliott.
Design Consultant: Andromache Chalfant
Running Time: 2 hours, including one intermission
The No Frills Company at The Zipper Factory Theater, 336 West 37th Street (between 8th & 9th Avenues) (212) 352-3101
12 Mondays at 7 PM from 2/12/08; closing 4/28/08.
All seats $35
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer on February 25, 2008

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