Star-Crossed Revivals

Theater Reviews Page | Previous Theater Review | Next Theater Review

Star-Crossed Revivals

Published in The Hopkins Review, New Series 6.3, Summer 2013

“We’re looking at movie stars! My God, it’s so exciting,” the 60 year-old man in the seat next to mine exclaimed to his wife. Precisely. In today’s theatrical environment, to revive a play on Broadway seems to require movie stars, or at least television stars, to create the excitement.  To become bankable on Broadway, a classic play itself is not enough, and arguably not even required. What counts is to include two or three actors whose first appearance will be interrupted by applause from groundlings so delighted to see a face familiarized by the mass media they cannot contain themselves until the familiar face has spoken a line or done anything specifically deserving of applause on this occasion.

First-Entrance Applause and the Economics of Screen Stardom

The first-entrance applause phenomenon has been deplored for years by various Broadway reviewers, but it is especially wince-worthy when the initial applause is much greater for actors whose previous service to the legitimate stage is minor or even nonexistent than it is for their colleagues who are true thespians. This kind of applause is a shout-out by the theatrically unsophisticated to the performers who make them feel safe. And it’s a shout-out over the heads of the more knowing audience members. It seems so unnecessary: does Broadway really intimidate the uninitiated to that extent?

Of course, when mass-media gods and goddesses deign to tread the boards on the White Way, they necessarily bring a kind of economic scarcity with them. They all have shooting schedules that will enable them to play thespian for only a short while, so the runs are almost always time-limited. A hit musical, by contrast, will just wheel in a new cast member or three when original contracts expire; for a play whose drawing power is pretty much limited to the marquee names in the original cast, however, the window of opportunity closes when, in short order, that original cast becomes unavailable. And that in turn will mean three- or four-month runs, and a concomitant investor pressure to make the money back through higher ticket prices. Investors, like the rest of us, can only make hay while the sun shineth.

Sour Play, Sour Revival

This is not a good thing. By any earlier standard, the cost of admission is thereby forced too high. Economists might differ, because almost every seat was filled at the three shows I am about to discuss, and clearly willing buyers and sellers were present at the transaction over each seat. Call me an adherent of medieval just-price theory if you like, or acknowledge with me that this expensive dependence upon mass-media stars has driven out the kinds of productions that might have been viable if career Broadway actors were more consistently recruited as leads. What survives the new marketplace realities may well be enjoyable, but it tempts directors to under-direct and dumbs down audiences.

I cannot even honestly say that I enjoyed the revival of The Heiress with Jessica Chastain, Dan Stevens, and David Straithairn. Chastain, fresh from her triumphs in The Help, Zero Dark Thirty and Mama, is a Hollywood star par excellence. She brings a watchful intelligence and an ability to command the attention while saying little that remind one of the early Clint Eastwood. But even with her initial training at Juilliard, she is not a stage actress, or at least was not directed like one. As the titular heroine, she seemed to have but one trick responsive to the challenges of the script, which calls for her character to alternate between reticence and disclosure: she drops her voice a few pitches and projects languidly but loudly when required to move from the former to the latter. But the script expects more, a heroine whose reticence conceals a secret life, and whose occasional loquaciousness bespeaks more than a truculent willingness to surprise listeners who did not credit the character with depth of feeling. This one trick cannot convey all that.

Not that the script would provide much to work with even if the central figure had been cast with a more robustly theatrical actress. Adapted in 1948 from Henry James’ novella Washington Square, it evinces the familiar Jamesian obsession with moneyed women and the pursuit of them by men who may be fortune-hunters. Perhaps in 1880, when Washington Square came out, this was a more gripping subject than modern readers may find it (though I speak as one who has always found James a crashing bore, no matter the subject, however heretical it may be to say). And the playwrights, Ruth and Augustus Goetz, tried to adapt the novella to the mind-set of mid-20th Century America, when, even if The Feminine Mystique was years away, from a legal perspective women still enjoyed much more agency in the modern sense of the word (ability to act for oneself) than they did in James’ time, and when, from a popular perspective, women were more admired than they had been in James’ time for wielding it. Thus the Goetzes diverge from James by making the titular heroine, Catherine Sloper, confront and ultimately in a sense vanquish her father, and also have her turn the tables on the suitor who had jilted her. So the action of the play is definitely more adapted to modern tastes than the dry and event-starved story that James told.

No Sow’s Ears Out of Silk Purses

Even so, it is a sour tale, and not very believably told, in part because of this all-star ensemble. It starts with the casting of Jessica Chastain as Catherine. The novel, and for that matter the script, call for Catherine to be plain. That is critical, since it establishes from the outset that the attentions of Morris Townsend (Stevens) are not based on true feelings. In deriving this conclusion from the fact of her reticence and lack of attractiveness, her father Dr. Sloper (Straithairn) comments: “It’s a diagnosis, my dear.” Yet, even equipped with unflattering wigs, this is Jessica Chastain we are talking about. She may not be the most glamorous actress ever, but she cannot believably play plain. She can play asexual, as we saw in Zero Dark Thirty, but not plain. A Jamesian storyline is not going to go to the opposite extreme and depend upon sheer animal magnetism as storylines by Inge and Williams do (as we shall discuss momentarily), but that hardly helps here. James is nothing if not literal-minded, and if plainness is a plot point, we need to see literal-minded plain.

The contrast with Sondheim and Lapine’s Passion (1994) is instructive. Donna Murphy, the original Fosca, was and is not unattractive, but somehow she could credibly play it, and it was critical that she do so, as her character’s plainness was the peculiarity that made the story so striking (Fosca winning a handsome young lover away from an attractive, loving and sexually compliant woman, at the cost of Fosca’s own life and the near-loss of others).

In a different way, Dan Stevens was a questionable bit of casting. Handsome and affable, he comes to us associated indelibly with his recently-abandoned television role as Matthew Crawley in Downton Abbey. Matthew is, or was, before his character’s fatal car accident, self-possessed, decent and honorable as they come. Morris, Stevens’ character here, is not. But that lack of honor is not immediately apparent; James and the Goetzes give Morris explanations for jilting Catherine that sound suspiciously honorable – and indeed the incident that reportedly inspired the story in James’ mind (a situation in which noted actress Fanny Kemble’s brother did something a good deal like what Morris does in the play) was touched with moral ambiguity. When Stevens does his self-possessed, handsome and affable thing in The Heiress, then, he is delaying until too late in the play the moment at which the audience should come to a consensus that Morris is a mere fortune-hunter. And this has the consequence that we are in danger of misapprehending the nature of Catherine’s ordeal in dealing with him until later than we should.

If Chastain, then, is miscast because of who and what she is (a striking young woman), Stevens is miscast because of our associations with him. And while this raises the question whether an astute theater-going public should ever acquiesce in typecasting – whether, in other words, we should not all be making a conscious and continuous effort to forget everything we’ve ever seen of an actor and how we’ve ever responded to that actor before – the question is totally theoretical. Audiences don’t and won’t forget. Sometimes, even often, an ambitious actor will aim for totally different roles, and we will applaud him/her for making us forget earlier ones (think of how Damien Lewis successively progressed in the television audience’s mind from his persona in Band of Brothers to that in Forsyte Saga to that in Homeland). But that process is for some reason harder to execute when the change is made on the stage; we saw Matthew Crawley for three whole seasons on the small screen, and Morris for a mere two hours on the boards of the Walter Kerr Theatre.

It should in fairness be mentioned, before we move on, that David Straithairn and Judith Ivey, two stars of both legitimate theater and the big screen, were more than creditable in their roles (as Catherine’s physician father and her aunt, respectively).

Fitting In Better

The obligatory star power was much more effectively handled in Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of William Inge’s Picnic (1953). This show featured the Broadway debut of two well-known Hollywood stars (Mare Winningham and Maggie Grace), and the second Broadway appearance of an emerging Hollywood leading man (Sebastian Stan). It blended these big-screen luminaries in with some Broadway stalwarts, e.g. Reed Birney, Madeleine Martin and Ellen Burstyn. Certainly in part because the play is so strong, and also doubtless because the casting was spot-on, the use of screen actors worked fine.

The appropriateness of the casting was key, and in a way that could not help but throw The Heiress into the strongest contrast. Where the Goetzes’ play called for a physically mousy heroine, Picnic does not work unless the two leads are transcendently attractive. Hal, the drifter who comes in and upsets the apple cart in a staid mid-century Kansas town (Sebastian Stan) turns the most heads. Stan, the actor, and hence Hal the character, is endowed with phenomenal abs; his shirt is whipped off in no time after he makes his first entrance, and at that point the female characters, young and old alike, all but wolf-whistle at his six-pack throughout most of the first act. Madge (Maggie Grace) is portrayed as the unambiguously prettiest member of her high school class (the homecoming queen of course), and as being told so so frequently that it is as if she is disappearing into her good looks.

FLO:                Well–pretty things–like flowers and sunsets and rubies–and pretty girls, too–they’re like billboards telling us life is good.

MADGE:        But where do I come in?

FLO:                What do you mean?

MADGE:        Maybe I get tired being looked at.

FLO:                 Madge!

MADGE:        Well, maybe I do!

FLO:                Don’t talk so selfish!

MADGE:        I don’t care if I am selfish. It’s no good just being pretty. It’s no good!

When circumstances bring these matched characters together, it amounts to assembling a critical mass of fissile material: these two will get together, and the heat generated by their union is a fact that everything and everyone else, characters and audience alike, will just need to accommodate.

Stage and screen coexist gracefully in a different pairing. Burstyn (also, to be fair, an accomplished screen actress) and Winningham share the stage together as a pair of senior ladies, next-door neighbors from way back. Burstyn is actually 22 years Winningham’s senior, but their characters seem roughly contemporary in this production. More to the current point, they seem entirely comfortable and natural as two women whose close proximity over many years has equipped each with a complete knowledge of the other’s life. They seem to have been lending each other neighborly support for years.

Still Under-Directed

The better use of Hollywood talent does not eliminate the temptation to under-direct, however, given the ambiguities in the play. There are two marriage-plots (if where Millie and Hal are headed at the end will prove to be a marriage). The other is the match between Rosemary (Elizabeth Marvel) a tough but erotically needy “old maid” teacher and Howard, a small shopkeeper who deals in “notions, novelties, and school supplies” (Birney). Howard comes for a tumble in the hay and stays because Rosemary wears him down with her insistence upon marriage. There seems to be little prospect that Howard will be a great husband, a fact she seems to know, but she is ecstatic to have whatever else the marriage will bring (status and a modicum of companionship featuring strongly in it). Madge and Hal’s union seems even less promising: he escapes on a train to Tulsa to avoid being arrested, and Madge, in defiance of the whole town’s expectations, decides to track him down and join him.

Her mother anticipates what in her view is likely to come of it:

FLO:                 He’s no good. He’ll never be able to support you. When he does have a job, he’ll spend all his money on booze. After a while, there’ll be other women.

MADGE:        I’ve thought of all those things.

Deciding whether this bleak prognosis is truly justified depends to a great degree on our grasp of two matters: mid-century mores and Inge’s take on them. And that grasp must in the nature of things be shaky. As Mad Men has been at pains to remind us, the way people thought and the way people just were then are more foreign than we might suspect. And Inge was inclined to show more than tell; it is not easy to decode his intentions.

Characters Who Fail to Commit, Directors Who Fail to Commit

Start with Hal. Much is made (both by him and by other characters) of his humble roots, and the fact that he was in college with Madge’s fiancé on a football and diving scholarship, and in the fiancé’s fraternity, but did not succeed academically there. Add to that his subsequent troubles finding a job and his apparent easy ways at all times with multiple women. Call him the archetype of an archetype – one more common in plays of that era than in this one – a drifter. Is there a solid citizen in Hal trying to break out or is he just a permanent tumbleweed who lights on a spot, fails, disarranges lives, and moves on? If he is a frustrated aspiring citizen never getting a break, that is a criticism of the closed society of that time and place. If not, Hal is an exemplar of some kind of personal inadequacy, and a caution to susceptible young women like Madge.

There is evidence both ways. On the minus side, he was born into a crumbling family, in his teen years stole a motorcycle, and was sent to reform school. He was unable to become an All-American athlete in college because he could not study. He failed in Hollywood because he balked at getting his teeth fixed. He lost a hard-earned cash stake to a pair of larcenous prostitutes. And he honestly sees himself as a loser. In the runup to the titular picnic, the schoolteacher makes advances on him, is spurned, and retaliates with venom, telling him he will end his life in the gutter where he belongs. Later, Hal comments bitterly: “She saw through me like a goddamn X-ray machine. There’s just no place in the world for a guy like me.”

On the other hand, time and again he seems more sinned against than sinning. He is always polite and agreeable. The fraternity brothers who rejected him in college seem to have been an unimaginative lot; in their reported near-unanimous rejection of agreeable Hal, they must surely have been operating on the basis of class prejudice, perhaps mixed with envy at Hal’s easy attractiveness to women. Before he lost the money to the prostitutes, he had earned every penny of it by hard work, etc. In short, one can plausibly argue that Hal’s track record of rootlessness is the doing of a society closed to advancement, and not the consequence of Hal’s flaws.

Inge himself does not seem to know, or maybe even to care which. He certainly does not tip his hand. It may be that Hal’s indeterminacy is meant to be his meaning.

Madge’s indeterminacy is a mirror image of Hal’s. The socially-approved expectation for young women of her time and place was clearly marriage, and Inge seems to have little quarrel with this. Yet the marriage she seems to be headed for (if marriage is even what it is) is not socially approved at all, may be a very bad choice. As Grace told a Playbill interviewer, it could be that Madge is “going to get pregnant and live in a hotel room.” Madge seems to be turning her back on a great deal with the assurance of getting very little. When she tells her mother, as quoted above, that she has “thought of these things,” does this mean she expects the hotel room and the eventual other women, or does she mean she has faith it will turn out better? Inge does not tell us. Is this a grand sacrifice for love or the heart knowing better than the head? For the same reasons, hard to say. Similarly, hard to know whether, in its smaller way, the union of Howard and Rosemary is some kind of Man and Superman-ish triumph of the irresistible domesticating female id over the counterproductive male impulse to be free, or whether Rosemary is simply deluding herself for a moment with a prospect of happiness that must prove illusory.

Director Sam Gold is spared having to make tough choices as to point of view and as to meaning by virtue of the star power trained on this show. No one is going to trip over his or her shoelaces or make us think too hard about the Meaning Of It All when looking so good and radiating such glamor. Directing is made too easy, and Gold does not do the work he should.

Johansson Is Maggie the Cat

The same kind of objection could surely be raised regarding the reanimation of a terribly, terribly problematic play, Tennessee Williams’ 1955 hit, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, that roared into the Richard Rodgers Theatre fronted by Scarlett Johansson and Ciarán Hinds. Let me immediately say that if I had the casting of Maggie the Cat in my gift, I would bestow it upon Johansson without question, star power or no. I am not a deep student of these things; I have seen Elizabeth Taylor’s filmed portrayal, of course, and I have seen clips of the Natalie Wood television version. But the role has been assayed by such diverse talents as Barbara Bel Geddes, Elizabeth Ashley, Ashley Judd and Kathleen Turner, and I am only dimly aware how they were received. Of the three performances I have seen with stars doing the role, however, Johansson’s seems to me closest to sounding like what Williams had in mind, both in terms of sheer diction and in terms of conveying the poetry in Williams’ lines.

Williams’ stage direction is worth repeating:

Margaret’s voice is both rapid and drawling. In her long speeches she has the vocal tricks of a priest delivering a liturgical chant, the lines are almost sung, always continuing a little beyond her breath so she has to gasp for another.

But that gasping is not the way actresses are trained to enunciate, and we all know that Southern Gothic is played with voices that have a certain legato quality, and vary in pitch more than tempo (to convey a kind of control even as the emotions rage). Johansson doesn’t care about any of that, and delivers the breathless, choppy gasping-ness that Williams specified. To me it was a revelation; it brings Maggie’s emotions closer to the surface, makes her layer of control seem thinner (although perhaps more steely at the same time). And once you know that this choppiness was what Williams heard in his own ear, you can see how he wrote her lines in bursts to play to it:

You know, our sex life didn’t just peter out in the usual way, it was cut off short, long before the natural time for it to, and it’s going to revive again, just as sudden as that. I’m confident of it. That’s what I’m keeping myself attractive for. For the time when you’ll see me again like other men see me. Yes, like other men see me. They still see me, Brick, and they like what they see. Uh-huh.

And Johansson has everything else the role requires: the body, the looks, the fire. She readily conveys the irresistible force that Williams sets up against her husband Brick’s immovable object.

As in the Picnic revival, all of the roles are beautifully played and directed to look good. Ciarán Hinds, who has thickened and coarsened since he was an Austen hero in Persuasion, is a fine Big Daddy, and the passive but firm resistance in Benjamin Walker’s portrayal of Brick is exactly what Williams must have imagined. There are aspects of Rob Ashford’s direction I question, most notably the acoustics (I will not call it sound design). There is so much noise so much of the time that lines get drowned out. But mostly Ashford arguably uses it to plunge us back into Williams’ fevered dream of a play.

A Thematic Swamp

But my major criticism is that Ashford does not lead the audience successfully through the play’s thematic swamp. The setup, known to most theatergoers, is that Brick’s father, Big Daddy Pollitt, the plantation-owning patriarch, is dying of cancer, and Brick or his brother Gooper will likely inherit. Brick is better loved by Big Daddy, but the choice may go the other way if Brick shows no prospect of perpetuating Big Daddy’s line. Gooper has produced five children (and has one on the way), while Brick can boast no children so far. He is childless because he is gay, and has stopped sleeping with his wife Maggie after she seduced Brick’s friend and lover, Skipper (who then killed himself with liquor). There are several big lies afloat in this situation: a) Big Daddy is being told he is not dying; b) Brick is denying, apparently to himself, that he is gay, and claiming that his not having sex with Maggie is solely due to “disgust” at her “mendacity”; c) Maggie, by the end, is claiming she is with child. One would think (with expectations colored by today’s very different era) that Williams, gay and not particularly closeted by 1955, would be all against deception in any of these contexts. But the play cannot be read to support such a view consistently; it may not even support honesty at all.

The lies told to Big Daddy seem to be liberating in an ugly way, if only for the moment; freed (or so he believes) from apprehensions of mortality, Big Daddy becomes crude and hurtful in his exultation, harping (to his son, no less) on how sexually distasteful his wife has become to him, and how he intends to pursue satisfaction elsewhere. Paradoxically, the lies told to him have led him to eschew lies he was telling others – and one only wishes he would put a lid on it, even at the cost of being disabused of false hope. Yet no one in the house will tell Big Daddy the truth, not even Maggie, who in other contexts is quite the truthteller.

The lies Brick tells himself and Maggie still have the power to astonish. He has internalized homophobia to such an extent that he will not recognize his own obvious orientation. Indeed, he has the audacity to pretend that he is in revolt against “mendacity.” He will not acknowledge that, whatever the impact of the simultaneous infidelity of his wife and his best friend, his sexual aversion to Maggie is hardly exclusively owing to that impact. And in this, Maggie is doubly the truthteller. She refuses to go along with his rejection of homosexuality (at least of the platonic form it perhaps took between Brick and Skipper):

BRICK:           One man has one great good true thing in his life. One great good thing which is true!–I had friendship with Skipper.–You are naming it dirty!

MARGARET: I’m not naming it dirty! I am naming it clean.

This exchange is followed by some equivocation as to how explicitly sexual the feelings were on either side of the Brick/Skipper relationship (equivocation one feels may have been placed there by Williams to keep censors at bay). But the gist of the entire exchange is that Maggie is no homophobe and is totally honest about what she did, and Brick is totally convoluted and dishonest in his take on the subject, although he exhibits a certain wry candor about a lesser topic, his incipient alcoholism. Maggie is likewise forthright about her plan, which is somehow to get pregnant, even, as Brick tells her, “by a man that can’t stand you.” By telling all these truths, Maggie wins the audience’s admiration. As repulsive as Big Daddy’s truths seem to be, Maggie’s seem redemptive – or at least would be were there any realistic prospect of Maggie conceiving Brick’s child.

In consequence, the whopper Maggie tells at the end seems like an unexpected compromise of her principles. There are two ways to take what happens when she tells Big Daddy that she is expecting Brick’s child. We know that the consequence of her announcement is that Big Daddy announces his intent to make his will in the morning, a will pretty clearly in favor of Brick and Maggie. But the script is agnostic as to whether Big Daddy believes her or not. It seems to run in parallel with whether he still believes he is cancer-free. Maggie’s announcement comes directly after he walks in on the rest of his household discussing his cancer, and he clearly senses something is amiss. (“Nothin’?” he observes of the discussion: “It looks like a whole lot of nothing!”) But whether he understands that this means that there is no reprieve for him after all is not clear. If he gets it that he is dying after all, then he may not believe Maggie (who with the rest of the family has concealed from him the truth about his cancer) either. Then again, he may believe both lies. Either way, his reaction makes sense, though a different kind of sense, depending: “Uh-huh, this girl has life in her body, that’s no lie!” [Italics in original.] Perhaps he believes in and refers to a baby, or perhaps he merely admires the life force that inspired Maggie to tell so boldly what he knows to be a lie. His decision to make the will is clearly a reward for the one or the other, but we are not to know which.

And either way, the play is glorifying someone’s lies, and condemning someone’s truthtelling. The final tableau makes everything just that much more confusing. Maggie and Brick are back on the marital bed. She tells him she intends to make her lie true. And she speaks lines that seem to exult in her strength and his weakness, suggesting she will somehow persuade him to impregnate her. As staged in this production, she is actually astride him in what might be a coital position, but, dressed as the characters otherwise are, intercourse would be impossible. More disrobing would be required. Will it happen next? No answer. Can we assume that she has already won, because Big Daddy is remaking the will? And if she has, what will become of that victory if Big Daddy spends long enough in the land of the living to see he was deceived (assuming he was deceived)? It may be that neither her vitality nor her honesty nor her dishonesty will be rewarded, and she will be merely the most foolish passenger on this particular ship of fools. Or perhaps she is the most savvy of the bunch.

The Director’s Job

In short, the contradictions and ambiguities are enough to make the head ache. A director could put his or her thumb on the scales and produce an interpretation in which there are some “right” or “wrong” answers to the many questions the text of the play raises, and thereby fashion a more coherent work. Ashford is not that director. But then, in today’s Broadway environment he doesn’t need to be; he has a movie star acting her heart out. Who cares what it means? The spectacle is all.

And that is the ultimate temptation inherent in turning classic plays into vehicles for screen stars. Those stars pull in audiences filled with the uninitiated, with people who fundamentally do not know how to watch a play, and who are too easily satisfied. Commercial success can be achieved with something half-baked. And half-baked seems to be more the norm than the exception with the successes that do result. Classic plays tend to require directorial shaping; stars tend to tempt directors to slack off. It’s not a good thing.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

Theater Reviews Page | Previous Theater Review | Next Theater Review