Wednesday, February 07, 2007

I Loved "A Spanish Play," I Don’t Care What Anyone Says

I’m glad I decided to delay judgment on Yasmina Reza’s A Spanish Play, currently up at NYC’s Classic Stage Company. I had a funny encounter with the subscribers sitting behind me—one man joked about leaving an aisle free for exiting. “I heard that!” I said, with playful self-righteousness. The woman with the man (who was a generation older than me, and probably an actress herself) suddenly started swearing a blue streak—“Fuck that Charles Isherwood!” “Well, I’m gonna judge it for myself,” I countered. She agreed. And we defiant theatergoers took our seats in the small thrust auditorium.

So, the consensus among reviewers seems be this: great actors transcending bad material. I agree, the actors were engaging, impressive veterans who were more than watchable. Since I'm with the reviewers on this point, I won’t dwell on the performances, but instead, I’ll put up a counterargument on the play itself. Maybe I just don’t see enough theater to be as jaded as everyone else, but I left the play wishing I had a copy of the script to read.

Why do people hate meta so much? Why do American audiences find it pretentious and gimmicky? Why all the bitching about its lack of originality? Who says deconstruction is trying to be “original?” Why do we need so badly to be taken for a superrealist ride? Why can’t we be more French? Or at least Canadian?

The play, translated from the French by David Ives, does not take itself too seriously, in my opinion, which is precisely what makes meta work, for me, when it does. Other reviewers claim the actors made unfunny lines funny, but I disagree. I would probably laugh at it on the page too.

The story’s main conceit is that we are watching a rehearsal of a Spanish play, a comedy, in which two of the characters are themselves actresses, one far more successful than the other. The less-successful one (played by the breathtaking Linda Emond) is rehearsing another play, a Bulgarian drama, throughout the Spanish play. Meanwhile, all cast members pause periodically to address a live videocam, projected on the back wall, with ruminations on their process, its irritants, and how it fucks with their identities.

Maybe the problem for we Americans is that when we see characters who are themselves actors, we want to have the laughs at their expense. Actors are only acceptable subject matter if we can make fun of their narcissism. Reza’s choice was to explore this tendency, but not fully buy into it. The result can be audiences flippantly saying, “good for actors, bad for everyone else.” I, for one, am glad Reza took this risk.

But I’m one non-actor who has grown interested in the actor’s process. I’ve decided they’re easy targets. I spent years believing the popular notion that actors are simply hungry for attention, nothing more. But conversations with actors, some novel-writing-research at HB Studios, and reading a few acting books has changed my tune. Acting, like fiction writing, is a highly moral activity. The morality comes from exploring other selves, finding common ground, practicing compassion and mercy. I think the world is hard on actors, especially fictional ones, even as we spend a good deal of our time watching the fruits of their labor.

The big crowd-pleasing moment of the play comes when the more successful actress character, Nuria, played by poised Katherine Borowitz, tries on two ridiculously slutty dresses she might wear to a red carpet. Crowd-pleasing, because insecure actors are such easy targets. But Reza is not fully laughing with us. It's her Spanish playwright's comedy, not hers. And when Borowitz steps down from her platform character-shoes to discuss the actor's process, the cruelty inside the cheap laughs (which I partook in) becomes subject matter. I was left with a tender view of artists and their efforts, the struggle to make "real" out of the artificial.

My favorite moment in the play is when Aurelia, Linda Emond’s character, is running lines for the Bulgarian play with her half-cooperative husband (played by engaging physical-comic Denis O’Hare). She does the same monologue twice. The first time, it’s easy to miss the nuance of the text, but the second time through, it carries more weight. This is definitely a case of actress transcending material—the actress Aurelia transcending the material of the Bulgarian play, fleshing it out through repetition, finding its value. And, though Emond’s execution is exquisite, credit for this repetition belongs to the playwrights, both the fictional Spanish one and Reza herself.

My brother, an actor, loved this scene too. “That’s the kind of thing you see in acting class,” he said on the ride home. A moment when, through practice, the text just clicks into place, becomes poetry before your eyes. It’s nice to be there when it happens.

(P.S....I'm not the only contrarian out there...)

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