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A CurtainUp Review
---Well, at the Public Theater, 2004-- by Elyse Sommer
From the moment you enter the Martinson Theater, there she is in the only furnished corner of the large stage having a nap in a shabby La-Z-Boy. Jayne Houdyshell doesn't look like a scene stealer. She's not young. Her body is big and shapeless. Her plain face is framed by undistinguished brown hair. Yet, whether dozing or awake, Houdyshell steals not one but just about every scene in Lisa Kron's new play, Well.
Ms. Kron deserves a bravery medal for using her mother as a central character, especially as warmly and humorously portrayed by Houdyshell. But then she's herself an engaging and natural performer who holds her own so perhaps that medal should be for shrewdness in creating this "avant-garde meta-theatrical" piece and deliberately allowing it to, as she puts it, "just bite you in the ass." Jordan Thaler and Heidi Griffiths deserve another medal for casting this formidable character actress, who earlier this seasons also gave a bravura performance in Fighting Words.
Though writing a play for an ensemble is a departure for Kron, she is on familiar territory in her use of autobiographical material to delve into broader issues. In Well she uses her own family's medical history and the Lansing, Michigan neighborhood where she grow up to knit together issues of health and illness both in the individual (her chronically unwell mother) and a community (a section of the city this sickly mother saved from the terminal deterioration often following racial integration). To make the transition from solo to ensemble play, Kron has structured her script as a work in progress, with herself as its narrator and organizer. As a humorous twist for the essentially serious story, she has piled conceit on conceit by having the actors demonstrate that characters often refuse to behave as the script dictates.
The story gets underway in typically solo performance style. Lisa in black pants and a shirt -- no costume for her -- steps into a circle of light and addresses the audience directly. She declares her intention: to deal with illness and wellness within a theatrical context. Though Houdyshell, the stage stand-in for her mother is in plain sight on the only part of the stage with pretensions to a set, Kron insists over and over again that this is not about her and her mother.
Mom, of course, is a character with a life and will of her own. No sooner does Lisa point to her than she bounces to fourth wall breaking life. She berates herself for forgetting to tape her favorite ice skating show and apologizes for not offering us a more comfortable chair ("but then where would we put the coats?"). After asking us if we'd like a drink, she tosses some sample snack bags she found at a restaurant supply place to people in the front rows. Evidently, being chronically sick and La-Z-Boy tethered, hasn't kept mom from being an irresistibly likeable woman of wit and intelligence.
In addition to Houdyshell there's a chorus of subsidiary characters who, like mom, tend to loosen Lisa's hold on her play. The four actors who make up the chorus play doctors and fellow patients at the hospital to which Lisa goes when she finds herself beset by the same sort of disabling allergies as her mother. They also portray residents of the Lansing area which Ann Kron organized to become a community instead of giving in to the sort of panic selling that has turned so many nice neighborhoods into crime-ridden slums. The actors do well by all their roles. Saidah Arrika Ekulona's over-the-top flounces and flourishes fit the character of the African-American girl who was the nemesis of Lisa's grade school days though I would have liked to see the director rein her in just a bit.
As Ann gently corrects Lisa's narrative of past events the actors, like the audience, become smitten with Houdyshell and disenchanted with their roles. Lisa becomes increasingly testy with Ann's well-meaning advice -- to the point where she stalks upstairs for a rest, telling her mother "Why don't you do your own show. That way you can say everything just the way you think it needs to be said." When one of the befuddled actors declares the increasingly out of control events to be "some kind of fucked up downtown bullshit" a hilarious mutiny on the boards seems inevitable.
This being a serio-comedy, the final mother-daughter confrontation ends on a satisfying note. While the play would have benefited from some trimming of the hospital and neighborhood scenes, director Leigh Silverman otherwise keeps all three plot elements bouncing along -- Lisa's narrative, the scenes acted out from her play and the play-interruptus business courtesy of the well-meaning mother. Allen Moyer has delightfully over-furnished Mom's corner of the stage and provided an airy staircase to suggest a complete house. The production values are further enhanced by Miranda Hoffman's costumes, Christopher Akerlind's lighting and Jill BC Duboff's sound design.
Now that we know Kron can share the stage with other actors, it will be interesting to see what she comes up with next. I'd like to think that that she's opened a door for other solo performers to have a chance to write more actor occupied plays -- and that given that opportunity, they will do so as entertainingly and well as Well.
2.5 Minute Ride -Kron's last play at the Public (a solo show)
Fighting Words -- Jane Houdyshell's last Off-Broadway play.
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