Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Play of Magical Thinking

Last week, Kip and I went to see Vanessa Redgrave in The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion's stage adaptation of her much-beloved, much-sold, much-awarded (and much-deserving) book. It is Ms. Didion's first play; she has spoke of her newness to the process. I recall several months ago reading that she began asking Scott Rudin, the play's producer, "how long" a play is "supposed to be."

Ms. Redgrave is undoubtedly one of the finest living stage actors, Ms. Didion is one of the finest writers working in English, and the play's director, David Hare, has done a fair amount of brilliant writing and acting himself. So needless to say, the production arrives with considerable ...weight.

The play's stregths lie, aside from the performance, in Joan's ability to juggle the timeline of the story: where to start, where to give facts and figures, where to give the narrative the gravity it needs. And, of course, on Joan's scalpel-like insight into her own pain, and willingness to go there. There isn't much directing -- at least on the surface -- and I think that helps the show. You get the feeling that Vanessa is just talking, and periodically has been told to stand up, or sit down, or let her hair down--none of it seems distracting, or forced.

One of the things that makes the performance so amazing is Vanessa's ability to embody the entire play at all times. You just get the feeling that she knows the ending--and of course she does--but that's also what makes a great storyteller. To know all the details, all the outcomes, and still remain in the moment.

I think, frankly, it's about 10 minutes too long. And perhaps they'll shave a bit off before it opens tomorrow night. Toward the end of the play, Vanessa produces Joan's book itself, and reads from a page or two. I don't like this idea at all. It immedaitely removed the veil of theater from the experience. Of course, it would have been ridiculous to have Vanessa actually try to immitae Joan's physicality, her speech patterns. But the entire monologue up to this point is a direct line to her consciousness--that it is Vanessa doesn't matter, because the story is so immediate and so real. But as soon as we're given an image from the real world--a book waiting at home on my shelf--the magic bubble bursts and we're left with Vanessa's face pointed down, into the pages of a book which looks every so small on that big empty stage, reading words rather than experiencing the words. It was the only part of the show which, to me, fell flat.

The set is brilliant--and quite minimal. A chair set center. And scrims painted with great swaths of black, white and grey, which fall from the ceiling, disappearing into the slats on the floor. Thus, the stage becomes deeper and blacker as the play continues.

I would like to see it again, in a few months, when it's finally opened and the reviews have either burned off or quieted down. Seeing a show like this, something so anticipated, it certainly has an energy to it. The entire house was buzzing--although I was perhaps the youngest person there.

So: Congratulations, Ms. Didion.

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