BWW Review: Physical Comedy Reigns Supreme in THE ACTRESS
You can certainly find subtler, more poetic titles than THE ACTRESS, a bittersweet comedy by Peter Quilter - with judicious snatches of Chekhov - now at Spirit Square. We follow storied actress Lydia Martin into her dressing room as she gives her farewell performance in The Cherry Orchard, electing to retire from the stage while makeup can still mask her flaws and she can still remember her lines.
With two dips into Lydia's onstage performance and an intermission sandwiched in between, all framed by her arrival at the theater and an impromptu post-performance celebration in her dressing room, we have a neatly symmetrical five-part structure. Quilter adds a nice little wrinkle at the end as Lydia and her ex-husband adjourn to the darkened stage for a final communion. In Ryan Maloney's set design, about a third of the Duke Energy Theatre is set aside for the Chekhov action, but I could easily imagine how beautifully this last scene would flow on a revolving set. Maloney's lighting design recovers some of that magic.
Until that point, I found a curious lack of theatre magic and specificity. Although the Three Bone Theatre playbill specifies 1933 as the time of the action, the script doesn't seem to help director Charles LaBorde to establish a time or a place for Lydia's farewell. Oddly, the backstage action isn't theatrical enough to convince me that this is a particularly momentous show. There are no acting colleagues or mentors slipping in to send her off, no reporters or photographers, not even Cherry Orchard castmates before or after the performance.
The only other person involved in the production is the director's sedulous emissary, Margaret, who relays the unseen director's notes to Lydia - a patently needless exercise, since it's doubly impossible that the star will ever make use of them. Yes, there are congratulatory flowers all over the place, some from colleagues and others from admirers, but her dresser, Katherine, still finds it necessary to mist the room with perfume before Lydia enters. Amy Wada digs into Katherine's uncertainty about whether she means anything to Lydia after a long, long business relationship, but Corlis Hayes seems to accept Margaret as a royal waste of time, mostly motivated by the prospect of leaving with a collectible memento.
Everyone else is a visitor, except perhaps for Harriet, Lydia's agent. With Lydia retiring, Harriet doesn't have any business with her client but she does have something to say. When Harriet is persistently shushed and ignored at the little afterparty - while drinking more and more of Lydia's best brandy, not the swill that she presented as a token gift - whatever she had intended to say is horribly twisted, one of the most dramatic spots in this production. Zendyn Duellman, consistently irritating with her high sycophantic energy as Harriet, becomes even more memorable here.
The rest of the backstage story is largely comedy. Lugging an industrial-strength decrepitude up the stairs to Lydia's door, Hank West is able to unleash a mighty volley of coughs and wheezes when he gets there as Lydia's rich fiancé, Charles. Whisking Lydia off to his native Switzerland seems laughably ambitious for someone so old and easily winded, but amid his bodacious wheezing, West endows Charles with a forbearance and determination that ultimately make him a bit endearing.
Ex-husband Paul has considerably more energy behind his persistence, and neither verbal rebuffs nor physical slaps from Lydia discourage his overtures. Bob Paolino definitely tunes into the love-hate relationship between these former intimates, and despite his conspicuous lack of appreciation for the theatre and Lydia's artistry, brings us a redeeming softness and fatherliness when her career officially ends.
I wasn't convinced that Paula Baldwin could wholeheartedly throw herself into Lydia's ambivalent reaction to Paul's forcible advances. When he called for a 1933 setting, LaBorde may have had those Hollywood films in mind where a leading man might respond, "you can hit harder than that," to a slap in the face and manfully take it as a woman's encouragement. That's definitely the drift here as both Lydia and Paul get mussed up in a physical comedy interlude while the actress keeps her audience waiting.
Trouble is, when Lydia's daughter Nicole walks through the door, Lydia has an aversion to her smoking - and a guilt about sneaking a cig for herself - that are 60 years ahead of their time. So the demands on Baldwin go beyond ambivalence. She's actually best in Act 2, when her past faults as a wife, mother, and person come into clearer focus and a warmer, more down-to-earth side of her surfaces. She also manages to convince us that it's not all about money with Charles.
Nicole isn't severely messed up or resentful in Robin Tynes' perky portrayal. We get the idea from Tynes that Nicole is a gentle reminder of Lydia's past lapses as a wife and parent - also a counterweight against those plans to flit off to Switzerland. But once he puts her before us, Quilter doesn't invest nearly enough into Nicole. I didn't detect the English accent that might make her objections to Mom's proposed move to Switzerland seem petulant and selfish. Sounding totally American, Tynes gave me the impression that Mom's displacement would be transoceanic. Sure, she seems unsettled, but not enough to be profoundly unhappy.
More substance to Nicole would add more definition to her ambivalence - and Quilter's serpentine script does wind up being very much about ambivalence. Ultimately, Lydia finds herself choosing between career and domestic comforts, between love and sex, and between familiar family and a new kind of life. So Quilter's title is subtler than he probably intended. Notwithstanding its setting and the sterling Three Bone Theatre performances that make it come alive, THE ACTRESS is hardly about theatre at all.