“The Dinner That Goes Wrong”
Female activists from the 60s are currently storming Off Broadway’s barricades, what with the recently opened Gloria: A Life, starring Christine Lahti as the real-life Gloria Steinem, and Alexi Kaye Campbell’s Apologia, starring Stockard Channing as the fictional Kristin Miller. I haven’t seen Gloria yet so I’m not sure what, if anything, the plays have in common, but it’s hard not to watch the mildly entertaining if unexceptionally conventional Apologia without thinking of Ms. Steinem.
Apologia, originally staged in London in 2009, was revived there last year under Jamie Lloyd’s direction, with Channing receiving rave reviews. She repeats her strong performance in the play’s New York premiere at the Laura Pels Theatre, briskly directed by Daniel Aukin for the Roundabout Theatre Company.
Kristin, an ex-pat American (Campbell rewrote the original British character for Channing), who disdains the shallowness of Americans and American culture, lives in an English countryside cottage, realistically designed by Dane Laffrey. (Bradley King designed the lights and Anita Yavich the costumes). Arriving to celebrate her birthday are her older son, the 40ish Peter (Hugh Dancy, excellent in a thinly drawn role), a banker his mother blames for raping the Third World, and Peter’s American girlfriend, Trudi (Talene Monahon, rather strident), a sincere young woman from Nebraska. The Liberian mask they’ve brought as a gift will generate discussion and come to have thematic, albeit awkwardly contrived, overtones when its provenance is uncovered.
Also present are Kristin’s gay, witty, English friend, Hugh (John Tillinger, charmingly urbane), who’s been her fellow protest marcher for over 40 years, and Claire (Megalyn Echikunwoke, excellent), the stunning, if somewhat shallow, star of a TV series. She’s the girlfriend of Kristin’s slightly younger son, the emotionally damaged Simon (also played by Dancy), who doesn’t show up for a while, giving Kristin something to be nervous about until he arrives.
Until then, she has lots of other stuff on her plate, although not the chicken she was cooking, since the oven isn’t working. Hugh thus has to order in fish and chips, much to his ultimate gastronomic distress. (Must've been those mushy peas.) The action circles around Kristin’s supercilious reactions to everyone, and theirs to her, especially in relation to her recent book, Apologia, a memoir, in which she discusses things like the art of Giotto.
The title Apologia is explained by Kristin as meaning “a formal, written defence of one’s opinions or conduct,” and isn’t meant as an apology. There are actually several apologies in the play but getting one from Kristin is no easy thing. Seeking one, though, becomes the play’s core when Peter, and then Simon, furiously express their disappointment at not having been mentioned in her book. This is tied to what they perceive as her selfish abandonment of them as children to their father’s custody when she and he got divorced; her preoccupation with her career and activism are also blamed. Kristin’s explanation is barely an excuse, much less an apology.
Kristin, unable to maintain congeniality, can’t hide her scorn for those she considers cultural yahoos, which may make you want to throttle her. Trudi is American so that’s one strike against her; strike two, she believes in Christianity; and strike three is that she met Peter at a prayer meeting and that he’s showing an interest in religion.
Kristin’s love of Renaissance humanism, even if expressed in a wonderful speech about a Giotto painting showing Mary embracing Christ, has no place for religious belief, as underscored in one of the several scenes intended for discussion and not dramatic action. She may march on behalf of the downtrodden but she shows little patience for those uncommitted to progressive causes.
Then there’s Claire, whose fame and fortune are tied to her success acting in what Kristin keeps denigrating as a soap opera, no matter how earnestly Claire rationalizes it as being on a higher level. Kristin appreciates that Claire once played Nora in an experimental production of A Doll’s House, but, in her narrow world view, she doesn’t think twice about using the word “whore” for anyone making and spending money instead of advancing a cause.
Thus, when Claire reveals how much her high-fashion dress cost (an odd choice to wear to a country cottage, one might think), you can imagine Kristin’s response. The fate of that dress, by the way, will not only provide a note of satisfaction for Kristin but also be yet another pseudo-farcical device inspiring the title of this review. And I haven’t even mentioned the artificiality of the contretemps involving Kristin accidentally answering Claire’s phone.
Kristin is smart and sarcastically funny but she’s not a pleasant person. Stockard Channing, though, makes her believable and even recognizable, a woman who has created, as Claire rather perceptively declares, a “carapace” around her, a shell that protects her from anything that threatens her idealism.
Apologia, in two acts running two hours and 10 minutes, is loosely structured around character revelations rather than plotting. Some of it seems familiar from other plays (especially the Seagull-like scene between Simon and Kristin as she tends to his injured hand), and not a little comes off as phony and cliched. But it’s never boring, has some worthwhile moments, and, when you get right down to it, Stockard Channing. And, for her presence, no apologies are needed.
Laura Pels Theatre
111 W. 46th St., NYC
Through December 16