Friday, March 30, 2007

Thinking: As In "What Were They (Critics)..."

Thinking: As In "What Were They (Critics)..."

One of this theatre season's most anticipated plays, The Year Of Magical Thinking, opened last night at Broadway's Booth Theatre. Based on Joan Didion's acclaimed memoir of the passing of her husband while her daughter was dying, the production is directed by David Hare and stars Vanessa Redgrave as Didion. Critics were mixed in their reviews.

Praising the show as "unmissable theatre," Variety's David Rooney seems downright awestruck: "Didion has filleted the text into a spare but compelling solo piece. Whether or not it's a play is difficult to judge in David Hare's audaciously austere production, given how inextricably linked the work is to Vanessa Redgrave's riveting interpretation...[T]he sobriety of this incarnation is entirely true to the tone of her memoir. The startling intimacy and affecting altruism of its insights on loss and their rigorous refusal of any of the standard dealing-with-death rhetoric allow the monologue to continue resonating well after Redgrave has taken her bows."

Proclaiming this "a 90-minute, semi-stream-of-consciousness monologue of virtuoso brilliance by a great actress," New York Post's Clive Barnes provides accolades in his three-star review: "Redgrave and Hare have created a starkly honest theatrical miracle out of Didion's text, which I find admirable yet suspect in its all too rational agony....Slowly, with the certainty of theatrical genius, nothing matters, as Redgrave -- assisted by Hare and Bob Crowley's scenic design, which is simply a series of collapsing curtains patterned like watered silk -- takes both text and audience into a never-never land of acceptance....This is acting at its grandest."

Also offering three out of four stars is Elysa Gardner of USA Today: "The play, directed with rigorous elegance by David Hare, is marked by the same lack of sanctimony and sentimentality. Dignity is the word that comes to mind in describing Redgrave's performance and Didion's script....[T]here are few elements of mystery or, in truth, revelation in their retelling."

Calling it an "arresting yet ultimately frustrating new drama," Ben Brantley of The New York Times divulges that the original source material helped him weather the loss of three individuals close to him. But apparently, the play is a disappointment when compared to the book: "[I]t is in the quiet between the words, as she tastes and digests what she has said, that Ms. Redgrave -- playing a character named Joan Didion -- comes closest to capturing Ms. Didion’s voice and the delicate layering of harsh feelings that made the book such a stunner....I never felt the magnetic pull that I experienced in reading the book. Though the script is by Ms. Didion, with many of its sentences lifted directly from the memoir, I never heard Ms. Didion’s voice when Ms. Redgrave was speaking."

Noting that the piece "still works better on the page than on the stage," the Associated Press' Michael Kuchwara clearly shares Brantley's disappointment: "David Hare, better known as a playwright than a director, has statically staged Magical Thinking. Redgrave is anchored to that chair for much of the evening. Behind her are a series of curtains resembling a shoreline -- perhaps the beach at Malibu where Didion, Dunne and their daughter spent some of their happiest times together....Redgrave wisely refuses to resort to impersonation, although she does affect an odd accent that sounds vaguely mid-Atlantic American."

Even less complimentary is Eric Grode of The New York Sun: "As counterintuitive as it may seem, the stage incarnation has a sterility that the book lacked, despite the presence of a living, breathing presence to lead us through these memories. Ms. Didion (portrayed by Ms. Redgrave) informs the audience that we are all going to lose our loved ones most likely sooner than we think. 'You don't want to think it could happen to you,' she says. 'That's why I'm here.' This shift in tone is understandable but not necessarily wise....Mr. Hare's obvious directorial contributions are few and far between: a few unnecessary dollops of sound effects and a series of wistful, watercolor-style backdrops from set designer Bob Crowley that subdivide the play into what amounts to chapters. He has also helped whittle Ms. Redgrave's performance to a piercing minimum, drawing upon her regal composure and her ability to rivet audiences with the sparest of movements."

Personally, I have not yet taken the time to read Didion's book. Given the disappointment in the reviews by those who already have -- and Clive Barnes' brave admission that he has not -- I think I'll be waiting to do so until after I've taken in the performance in early May.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Click here for tickets.
Related Stories:

The Night Of Magical Openings (March 29, 2007)
First Night Of Magical Redgrave (March 6, 2007)
Survey Says.... (October 23, 2006)
Vanessa Redgrave to Make Broadway Return as Joan Didion (May 26, 2006)

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