Saturday, 10 January 2015

Metaphor in New York

A few days ago, before embarking on a week of fresh frontier works as part of several festivals now playing in New York - Coil, Under the Radar, Prototype and others - I visited two classics of the American theatre: A Delicate Balance and Into the Woods.

Edward Albee's 1966 Pulitzer winning play about an unnamed terror is running at the Golden Theater with a starry cast including Glenn Close, John Lithgow and Lindsay Duncan. It's a curious experience. It's the type of production you would never see on an Australian professional stage - a perfectly realised WASP living room with a curtain rising and falling on tableaux at beginning and ends of acts and scenes. 

The performances are mostly disappointing. Few of the cast seem to be living in the play's situation and instead rely on presenting its ideas. Lithgow's extraordinary speech about a pet cat he had put down for avoiding his company and refusing to purr is an exception. So too are performances by Bob Balaban and Clare Higgins as visiting friends Harry and Edna. When they enter that living room, fleeing from and gripped by a sudden undefined existential eruption, they bring with them something visceral and alerting. These characters often seem the least authentic, and the most authorial, in productions of this play, but here they tremor with truth and make us fear the terror that lurks.

Finally, the play wins out and we feel the tug of Albee's mysterious drama.

Sondheim's 1986 musical is in previews for the Roundabout Theater at the Laura Pels. It's a Fiasco Theater production in from Princeton, made up mostly of graduates of the Brown University/Trinity Rep M.F.A. acting program. So, no stars here. Nor does the production have an orchestra, but is rather served by a central piano and an assortment of unconventional instruments scratched, pounded or played by the cast. It's fair to say that a couple of this cast can barely hold a tune, but nevertheless they manage to bring such life to the lyrics and situation that most musical faltering is forgiven. In some ways this production is a revelation - the naked show with an authentic pulse. I wish there was more of this in the Albee.

In seeing these two shows back-to-back it was difficult not to conflate the terror of Albee's unnamed plague with the terror of Sondheim's giant. In doing so on the day of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, it was easy to feel both as an expression of the contemporary situation. At both theatres, Paris was on the stage.

Great theatre must exist as metaphor. Both these works do. There is comfort, too: dawn breaks on some kind of delicate balance and the thudding giant is killed.

May life reflect the theatre.

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