Theater Review: Wasps With a Very Gentle Sting, in What I Did Last Summer

18 May 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Theater Review: Wasps With a Very Gentle Sting, in What I Did Last Summer.

This is exactly what happens in “What I Did Last Summer,” but it’s easy to overlook the story’s banality since the show’s warmly engaging, inventively staged and elevated by a wonderful cast. A playwright is really asking for it when he creates, in a semiautobiographical work, a conflict whose glorious resolution is the writing of the play itself.

Gurney mined his upstate New York upbringing in many semiautobiographical shows, from “The Cocktail Hour” to “The Grand Manner,” so it’s no surprise that his latest sepia-toned entry is well-crafted: The guy’s had practice. Once part of the same Wasp elite, Anna, generally called the Pig Woman, has descended into a life of creative rebellion (as she sees it romantically) or charismatic eccentricity (as Claire sees it worriedly). With his dad away fighting in the Pacific, Charlie’s getting antsy, stuck between his prim mom, Grace (Carolyn McCormick), and bookish older sister, Elsie (Kate McGonigle).

There are many rumors about Anna: She is part Tuscarora Indian, she was the mistress of a wealthy doctor, she is “an artist manqué,” she doesn’t wear underwear. Beneath that, however, is an imaginative riff on this era of cookie-cutter living, shaken by the profound platonic romance that unfolds between a boy and the teacher who shows him his own potential. “This is a play about me when I was fourteen,” says Charlie — Noah Galvin’s gelled hair, high-waisted pants, and cherubic face painting an idyllic picture of 1940s American wholesomeness. Gossip swirls around Anna, who’s described as an “artist manquée”: “It means she gives art lessons, but nobody takes them,” explains Charlie’s crush, Bonny (Juliet Brett). In its own way, this moth-eaten, presentational style is enjoyable and convincing, bringing to life the pleasures and disappointments of the time it’s set in, and the presumably authentic lingo to go with them. (Charlie, giving his sister the finger, tells her to “Perch and rotate, Elsie. He yearns for a driver’s license, a passing grade in Latin, and a second look from Bonny — a cute young local played by Juliet Brett with endearing teenage insecurity, particularly upon the advances of Charlie’s 16-year-old Canadian pal Ted (a self-assured Pico Alexander).

But you’re happy to go along because those clichés are so nicely wrapped: Jim Simpson’s production has a sparse charm — drummer Dan Weiner provides a live score and sound effects from the side of the mostly bare stage — and the actors are uncommonly lovely. At least in the script, Charlie, despite Anna’s attempts to find the painter, sculptor, weaver, or poet in him, has no more artistic potential than any other twerpy teen, nor any convincing interest in discovering it except to the degree it might further annoy his mother or make him interesting to Bonny, a girl he’d like to date. Nielsen, last seen in Broadway’s “You Can’t Take It With You,” tones down her habitual comic mannerisms and is especially affecting when Anna meets her comeuppance. So as the play focuses more on Anna’s supposed opening of Charlie’s soul, it becomes less convincing; its narrative flimsiness seems less excusable and more and more like a dodge. Worse, the comedy structure is unable to absorb the implications of the darker observations that keep popping up — for instance Anna’s potentially Miss Brodie–like problem: CHARLIE: I flunked Latin, I don’t have my driver’s license, Bonny treats me like I’m her little brother.

At 21, he makes for a convincing teenager — a feat he’s set to repeat in the upcoming ABC sitcom “The Real O’Neals” — and he’s especially funny when Charlie’s often. Anna, on the other hand (with whom Grace turns out to have a storied past), is a free spirit who communes with nature and lives life by the seat of her pants. The play seems confused about how seriously it wants to be taken, as if its autobiographical impulses — which is to say its complications and real confusions — needed comic tempering lest they end up revealing too much. She pays for Charlie’s labor in art lessons, from painting to pottery to poetry, all in search of his elusive “potential” — something Charlie never even knew he possessed.

The result is slightly smarmy and slightly obtuse, especially in the disappointing fizzle of a climactic confrontation between Claire and Anna, which after so much discussion of art and spirit turns on a mere romantic indiscretion. Even so, through her voice, we can see Charlie slowly developing his own, as is the natural progression when eye-opening ideas are passed from teacher to student.

The Signature’s production, directed by Jim Simpson — who has staged a number of recent Gurney plays at his home base, the Flea — does not have those problems. Her aggressive manner is subtly threatening, and yet the energy she exudes suggests a mysterious higher plane, as if she holds the key to new, unexplored horizons. She and Galvin find a sweetness in Anna and Charlie’s unorthodox bond, which, even if unhealthily codependent at times, is powerfully formative for both. A drummer sits with his kit downstage right, sometimes illustrating the action, sometimes accompanying it like a film score, and sometimes providing literal sound effects or even rim shots.

Gurney uses the play to tell the story of his own childhood “Anna,” adding another fascinating layer of history to the memory play and insight into its author’s own creative journey. Meanwhile, Simpson literalizes the play’s embarrassing self-referentiality by turning the script, as projected onto a backdrop, into the main design element. (The set is by Michael Yeargan; the projections are by John Narun.) Stage directions, important words and lines, even the cellphone announcement appear, crossfade, and reconfigure constantly behind the actors — a distraction, like the drumming, that you eventually tune out, proving their needlessness in the first place. When the extraordinary product of a teacher’s influence is on immediate display, that unique, indefinable relationship that shapes an artist’s life gets its long-awaited due. The artificial Wasp world of the Higgins family and its community is slightly overacted, in a bright sitcom way, as if Three’s Company were doing a special flashback episode.

She doesn’t strangle the role with shtick, but gives us enough wacko fizz to help us understand who the woman is, all the while offsetting that with a more detailed and disciplined — and therefore more moving — portrait of a failed artist. Her Anna is the kind of woman whose intelligence and entitlement pushed her too quickly over the containments that might have channeled her eccentricities more usefully. (She’s a cousin of the Melissa Gardner character in Gurney’s Love Letters, lately played by Mia Farrow.) It’s surprisingly unbearable to find her, in her last scene, resigned to the hell of normalcy, if she can even achieve it. The totally adorable Noah Galvin (who will star as the gay son on The Real O’Neals on ABC this fall) beautifully connects the two worlds in which the boy operates, and the different acting styles demanded by each. With his family, he’s petulant and sarcastic in an almost contemporary way; with Anna, he’s as searching and unguarded as the young hero of a problem play like Tea and Sympathy.

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