Connecticut Review: 'The Bay at Nice' Makes an Impression
"The Bay at Nice"
Written by David Hare
Directed by Michael Wilson
Scenic Design by Tony Straiges
Costume Design by Willa Kim
Lighting Design by Rui Rita
Valentina Nrovka, Estelle Parsons
Sophia Yepileva, Angelica Torn
Assistant Curator, Corey Brill
Peter Linitsky, Peter Maloney
Performances: Now through November 14
Box Office: 860-527-5151 or www.hartfordstage.org
Connecticut's Hartford Stage has assembled an impressive cast and creative team to present the venerable David Hare's seldom-performed one-act play of art and artifice, "The Bay at Nice." While all the individual brushstrokes that make up a masterpiece seem to be there on paper, they somehow never manage, however, to coalesce into the vibrant work of art that such a pedigree promises.
This 75-minute drama performed without intermission was originally conceived by Hare, the ever political author of London's current "Stuff Happens," in 1986 as the first half of a double bill that contrasts the stark repression of Khrushchev's Russia ("The Bay at Nice") with the post-war opulence of Eisenhower's Baby Boomers ("Wrecked Eggs"). Perhaps the play would deliver a stronger punch if it were still performed in tandem today.
"The Bay at Nice" refers to a painting believed to be the work of Matisse that is acquired by The Hermitage, Leningrad's famed art museum. To confirm its authenticity, the collection's assistant curator calls upon the learned Valentina Nrovka, a one-time bohemian and student of Matisse who returned to Russia from Paris when she discovered she was pregnant. Choosing responsibility over hedonism, Valentina is now a respected doyenne who years ago quietly gave up her own painting career when she couldn't allow herself to conform to The Party's stringent ideology.
At odds with Valentina is her 36-year-old daughter Sophia, an angry but subdued revolutionary whose one true act of rebellion is to divorce her rising Communist husband and marry Peter, a lowly sanitation worker of 63. Valentina's transition from Parisienne libertine to Russian stoic is juxtaposed nicely against Sophia's emergence from dutiful housewife to free – but inconsequential – commoner. This clash of differing choices and opposing wills causes faintly discernible measures of regret in the mother and long-awaited surrender and relief in the daughter.
Ageless Broadway veteran Estelle Parsons plays Valentina with a façade of resigned elegance that is periodically shattered by her biting wit and acerbic tongue. She alternately rails against her daughter's idealism, calling her quest for freedom an escape and an excuse for selfishness, then returns to being the young idealist herself as she reminisces about her days of passion as a carefree artist. Parsons also has a nice scene with Sophia's unambitious intended Peter Linitsky, played with unassuming affability by Peter Maloney, in which she moves from barely contained disdain to polite, almost respectful, disregard.
Despite Parsons' layered and textured performance, however, "The Bay at Nice" is more paint-by-numbers than expressionism. Director Michael Wilson has taken a very stylized approach to his subject matter, attempting to convey the rigidity and repression of the Cold War Soviet Union by stiffening and repressing his actors. More than once Peter Mahoney seemed to be fighting his impulses to break free of his stilted blocking, and as the surly and sullen Sophia, Angelica Torn suffers the most from her confinement. She translates her character's tragic discontent into a monotonous stridency that makes her completely unsympathetic.
Sets by Tony Straiges and costumes by Willa Kim warm things up a bit, as does a clever piece of lighting by Rui Rita at the end; but these bright touches can't compensate for the play's emphasis on the political over the personal. The ideas and ideologies examined by Hare in this production take precedence over the very real impact that those ideas and ideologies have on their tormented subjects.
Ultimately, Hartford Stage's "The Bay at Nice" offers a series of colorful but unblended moments that give us more style than substance. The result is a serviceable and attractive painting that goes well with the furniture but doesn't enliven the room.