Friday, May 30, 2014

15. Review of TOO MUCH SUN (May 29, 2014)


Aside from a terrific opening scene and the sarcastically biting yet warmly human presence of Linda Lavin, there’s not much else to recommend in this sporadically diverting, predictable, and otherwise unexciting dramedy from Nicky Silver at the Vineyard Theatre. A couple of the supporting players, especially Jennifer Westfeldt, provide quality support to Ms. Lavin’s efforts, but the play, efficiently staged by Michael Brokaw, is essentially a star vehicle, with mechanical failures that should have had it recalled.  

Jennifer Westfeldt, Linda Lavin. Photo: Carol Rosegg. 

That opening scene has Ms. Lavin, playing famous actress Audrey Langham, decked out in a loose, red, classical garment and tightly curled wig, alone on stage during the final dress rehearsal of MEDEA, scheduled to open the following night at a major Chicago theatre. She keeps going up on her lines, and soon begins to bicker about her costume’s color, the temperature in her dressing room, her direction, and the very idea of doing MEDEA at all. Her back and forth with the unseen director, whose voice is heard on the loudspeaker, is a priceless depiction of the professional breakdown of a prima donna, one too self-centered even to get right the name of the gofer she sends out for tea. Finally, she gives up and walks out, leaving the company without its leading lady.

Linda Lavin, Jennifer Westfeldt. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Regardless of her personal issues, such behavior is, of course, unpardonable in the theatre, but because of the personal appeal of Ms. Lavin we too quickly forgive her when, in the next scene, she shows up at the Cape Cod summer home of her daughter, Kitty (Ms. Westfeldt), a disillusioned schoolteacher, and her advertising executive husband, Dennis (Ken Barnett). Dennis has taken the summer off to write a sci-fi novel about an alien with two sons, which the inattentive Kitty confuses with “two suns,” and thus the play’s title; he kvetches about having his unwelcome mother-in-law camping out in his guest room cum office. Audrey and Kitty have long held each other at arm’s distance, Audrey having been too busy with her career to be a properly attentive mother, Kitty being resentful of all the missed opportunities for familial bonding, including when her mother sent an understudy to Kitty’s wedding because she was professionally engaged. The action, as Kitty and Audrey strive to work out their bitter personal issues, is set on the deck of the beachfront home, nicely designed by Donyale Werle, with some scenes played downstage right on a semblance of beach.

Ken Barnett, Jennifer Westfeldt. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

During the play’s two acts we’re introduced to the gay, UCLA-bound neighbor, Lucas (Matt Dickson), the local pot supplier whose best customer is a town policeman; his handsome, widowed dad, Winston (Richard Bekins), a wealthy man with a strong interest in India, with whom the five-time married (six if you count an annulment) Audrey seeks a new life partner as a way of resolving her financial problems; and Gil (Matt Dellapina), the hapless assistant to Audrey’s agent, Duran, whose job it is to get Audrey to return to Chicago for MEDEA, but who winds up staying all summer, hoping to realize his goal of becoming a rabbi (you won’t believe it either). A principal subplot swirls around an unconvincing romance between the closeted Dennis and the pothead Lucas.

Matt Dixon, Ken Barnett. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

As stewed in Mr. Silver’s playwriting pot some of this shows up as lumps of comedy, some as chunks of melodrama, and some as pieces of schmaltz, but very little is more than slightly tasty or chewable. It’s mainly when Ms. Lavin is on stage that we pay attention, not so much to what she’s saying as to how she says it. Reading the script gives you little preparation for the way she’ll take a line and invest it with a vocal shading, gesture, or facial expression that, even when supposedly thrown away, always hits its target with a ping. Even when singing the Brecht-Weill “Surabaya Johnny,” which Audrey performs in an entre-act as preparation for her wedding to Winston, Ms. Lavin shines with honesty and truth. She’s not averse to looking frumpy, as when she first gets out of bed after arriving in Cape Cod, but once she’s met Winston, she shows how smashing she can be with beautifully coiffed hair and wearing several colorfully coordinated outfits designed for her by Michael Krass. Her every gesture, as when she flicks her hair from her forehead, throws off sparkles of star charisma.

Linda Lavin, Matt Dellapina. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Ms. Lavin brings a sense of familiarity to her acting, making you feel like you know her, not because you’ve seen her on stage or screen before, but because she’s so relaxed and natural, so much like someone you’re sure you know that you feel you could easily go up to her stage character and strike up a conversation. Audrey, for all Mr. Silver’s association of the role with Medea, who killed her children, may be narcissistic in the extreme, but she’s far from being such a monster (as in Ms. Lavin’s role in the playwright’s THE LYONS), even though we can sympathize with Kitty’s feeling of abandonment. Mr. Silver tries to help us understand her more deeply by giving Audrey a big reveal about why she prevented Kitty’s father from ever seeing her after they split up, but the speech, like others in the play used to explain characters’ backgrounds (such as the one about Lucas’s mother’s death), is artificial, put there for dramatic effect and not because the situation earned it.      

TOO MUCH SUN has many witty lines, and some moments of truthful insight that make their mark, but these are not enough to compensate for its various weaknesses. Linda Lavin, however, glows with enough sunlight to cast away its darker shadows.