For the final production in the Tony Kushner season at the Signature Theatre Company, my friend Diana and I went over the Peter Norton Space on far West 42nd Street for The Illusion, the playwright’s adaptation of L’Illusion comique (The Theatrical or Comic Illusion, 1636), Pierre Corneille’s 17th-century “mongrel oddity.” That’s what New York Times’ reviewer Ben Brantley called the play that features magic and other enchantments (“phantasms,” Kushner calls them), adapted when Kushner was working on Angels in America. The Illusion was first performed in a reading at the New York Theater Workshop in 1988 and the full production premièred, directed by Mark Lamos, in 1990 at the Hartford Stage Company “where the play became what it is now.” It went on to productions at such regional companies as Berkeley Rep in 1991 and around the country and abroad thereafter, becoming the work that made Kushner a playwright who lived off his writing. It was last staged in New York in 1994 at the Classic Stage Company. The Signature production, which has been extended through 17 July, was staged by Michael Mayer, best known for the musicals Spring Awakening and American Idiot.
Corneille (1606-84), older contemporary of Jean Racine (1639-99) and Molière (1622-73), is principally known for his tragedies, especially Le Cid (1637). His most popular comedy is The Liar (Le Menteur, 1643), a translation of which by David Ives (on a regional production of whose Venus in Fur I’ll be reporting for ROT shortly) was staged last spring at Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre Company. Corneille described L’Illusion comique as a “gallant extravaganza” and it’s often compared to Shakespeare’s The Tempest (including by Brantley and other reviewers), to which it bears some superficial resemblances. (Both plays have a sorcerer at the center and feature a pair of young lovers.) Coincidentally, like Ives’s Venus, L’Illusion has metatheatrical aspects: the two young lovers are actors and the play ends with a defense of acting.
Kushner’s Illusion follows the lawyer Pridamant of Avignon as he searches for the son he banished 15 years earlier. At the opening of the play, Pridamant’s been directed to the cave of Alcandre, a mysterious and powerful sorcerer who claims to be able to conjure images of the young man. Throughout the play, Alcandre presents three different versions of the son’s life, all with the same two women and three men, but they are referred to by different names and behave differently in each image, and the visions are in different locations. The old man recognizes his son, but the younger man is never called by his real name, which we never learn because Pridamant can’t seem to remember it. As the images become increasingly sinister, Pridamant becomes more determined to rescue his son from what looks like inevitable tragedy. In the end, most of what Alcandre reveals turns out to be illusion. The way Pridamant responds to what he sees is, of course, what Kushner wants us to observe.
Kushner’s rendition, which runs two hours and 20 minutes plus an intermission, has the adapter’s inimitable stamp on it, though the basic plot generally seems to follow the original. “Freely adapted” from Corneille, as the published edition states, none of the text is a direct translation from the French. L’Illusion comique (which I haven’t read) included only two visions; The Illusion uses a scene Kushner borrowed from a 15th-century Spanish comedia called Calisto [y Malibea] by Fernando de Rojas for the first illusion. The language in The Illusion, however, is purely Kushner’s, including the occasional verse passages. The text has aspects of both 17th-century formality (or faux-formality, perhaps) and contemporary colloquiality, but the two don’t seem to clash. (Kushner’s adaptation is published in a 1994 and a 2004 edition.) As Brantley says, Kushner’s “one of the most linguistically luxuriant dramatists of our time.” He’s besotted with language, in fact. If Alcandre casts spells with magic, Kushner does it with words—not incantations, but ordinary words. This early work, which was written on commission at the request of Jim Nicola of the New York Theatre Workshop for director Brian Kulick (now at CSC), is perhaps a pure example of Kushner’s love affair with language since it contains none of the political and social commentary of, say, Angels, which he set aside briefly to write The Illusion. “Of all my plays it’s the least overtly political,” says Kushner of The Illusion. He sees it as a romance “about love and disappointment and disillusion.”
And magic. Kushner also admits, “I’ve always loved magic,” including that it never seems to work fully on stage. “You can always see the wires,” he says with some apparent delight. (I wonder if he was thinking about the mega-musical in previews a few blocks east at the time of the interview, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark?) The Illusion, Kushner concludes, is “mostly very romantic and magical and it’s the only time I’ve ever given myself permission to really write about what we do.” I take that last clause to refer to the making of theater, because at the center of The Illusion, just as it is in L’Illusion comique, is theater, acting, and creating theatrical illusions. At least in Kushner’s version, that’s the plot line. As I discuss in my upcoming report on Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, the theme’s different. As Alcandre’s last speech makes clear, love is the greatest of life’s illusions, and the take-away for The Illusion.
(A note here: Though the French play apparently makes it known that Pridamant’s son falls in with a troupe of actors early in the plot, giving us a big hint about what’s going on, Kushner doesn’t tell us anything of that until after all the visions have concluded and Pridamant responds to what he believes he’s seen. If you didn’t read the reviews or a synopsis of Corneille’s play, you might be in the same position as the old man, but even though it’s retrospective, the theatrical aspect of the plot and theme are significant to understanding the play, and I’ve had to be something of a spoiler. Sorry about that. I don’t know how to get around it.)
Kushner considers that all his work is about family and love. The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide, he says, is his “conscious attempt to write a big family drama” and Angels is about the way “LGBT people have had a history of having to cobble together a family in the absence of a biological family” that had often rejected them. In The Illusion, the dramatist offers, “the central relationship is between a father and a son,” driven, Kushner says, “by the way the father has replicated in his son a kind of violence.” Indeed, the playwright believes we could perceive a connection between Pridamant and Roy Cohn in Angels, the surrogate father for the conflicted Mormon lawyer, Joe Pitt. All three plays, Kushner notes, depict “a struggling with the issue of fathers.” (Kushner insists that this wasn’t part of his own experience, but that he’d observed it among gay people he knew.)
The “improvised family,” a “trope” Kushner says appears in “a lot of gay literature,” is a force in Angels, of course, but it can also be seen in the theater troupe that Pridamant’s son substitutes for the father who banished him. But the father doesn’t entirely get the dilemma: when Alcandre reveals that the young man had become an actor, Pridamant ponders this news and though he’s glad his son isn’t really in jeopardy, he says he isn’t sure he likes the idea the boy’s an actor. (Is that irony—a lawyer looking down on an actor?) When Alcandre tells Pridamant that his son’s appearing at a theater in Paris and encourages him to travel there to see him, the old father demurs—the roads are bad and it’s an arduous journey. Maybe he’ll go—and maybe he won’t. So much for paternal love and regret.
Let me come back to the script shortly and say my piece about the production first. In all, the Signature’s staging is excellent, as it usually is. Christine Jones’s set and Kevin Adams’s lighting combine effectively to create a mystical and magical environment within Alcandre’s cave, with giant framed mirrors upstage for apparitions to come and go, entering our world at the sorcerer’s command; a half-buried piano (which may also be a portal to the nether world) with many mechanical applications around its casing; mysterious lanterns suspended from the ceiling that rise and fall for various purposes (not least of which is to brighten or darken the surroundings); and a huge vase from which flowers sprout instantaneously. (The set is crisscrossed with mysterious red string like some of Richard Foreman’s early environments.) It’s more like a spooky attic in an enchanted mansion than a dank bat cave, perhaps, but Pridamant is quickly convinced that anything can happen here, as on Prospero’s island, and I was more than willing to go along and, as Kushner wants, “suspend your disbelief and suspend your belief as well.” Susan Hilferty’s 17th-century costumes are at once theatrical and dream-like.
The performances are universally good, though there are clear standouts among the cast. The wizard Alcandre, usually a male role, is here played by the wonderful Lois Smith whom I last saw at Signature as Carrie Watts in Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful in December 2005. I don’t think Smith can deliver anything less than a credible and warm performance, and she does here as a sort of maternal witch, if that’s a possible concept. (I suspect that casting the part with a woman, especially one as innately sympathetic as Smith, softens the character that appears to be written as a cynic and misanthrope. I mean, who else lives in a cave with only a deaf-mute servant? Really!) It works well enough here and Smith keeps the pressure on Pridamant to see the hatefulness of his actions toward his teenaged son so long ago. Her natural empathy also makes Alcandre’s final lines about theater, love, and illusion—which are really just romantic claptrap—almost believable.
Pridamant is played by another vet, David Margulies, a former teacher of mine from several decades ago. (Brantley remarked that together, Smith’s and Margulies’s “combined years on the stage total more than a century.” I suppose that’s accurate, if a little harsh.) I last saw David on stage in Tina Howe's Chasing Manet for Primary Stages in April 2009. He’s a little idiosyncratic as an actor—not enough to approach mannered, but he’s recognizable to me instantly, especially, since in this case he enters in partial darkness and covered by a large hat, by his voice. (David’s an old-school stage actor, despite his film and TV credits: he uses his voice not only to help create character and circumstances, but to project them to the back row of the house. You never miss one of his lines.) A true character actor, David can make any role unique, substantial, and believable no matter how eccentric or peculiar, and that includes Pridamant. (I think especially of his work in Comedians and Zalmen or The Madness of God.) While this man is the definition of bad fatherhood, David makes him worthy of sympathy even at the last moment when he balks at going to Paris to reconcile with his son. David’s Pridamant is so befuddled and confused, not only by the scenes Alcandre has set before him but because he just hasn’t ever understood what he’s done to his son or what it means to be a father, that it’s almost reasonable that he wouldn’t know what to do next. David here combines bluster and self-delusion in such a way that it becomes a whole new emotion. Just as Lois Smith makes Alcandre a sort of tough-love teacher rather than a sadistic cynic, David makes Pridamant almost a victim rather than an abuser.
The standouts, however, aren’t these vets. Abetted by Kushner’s writing (he created the characters that are the platform for the performances), another old hand and a newer talent stand in the spotlight, so to speak. Peter Bartlett, whose own career goes back to the ‘60s, is Matamore, a braggart, loony aristocrat with a rubbery face that suggests Jack Gilford when he did his bubbling oatmeal gag. Matamore shuts out the reality of the world to perpetuate the fantasy realm in which he’s a great warrior and lover and Bartlett makes you feel he may even have the right tack for Kushner’s funhouse-mirror universe. When Matamore’s inner world is pierced by the truth, the crestfallen Bartlett resembles nothing more than a bereft puppy, upon which he becomes a desolate hermit (and escapes inside that magical piano). But Bartlett could be performing in his own play, Matamore’s world is so self-contained. As a series of maids and confidantes, Merritt Wever has so totally captured the feeling of Kushner’s alternate universe that above all the other actors, she shone. She does tart extremely becomingly! Though we learn that the people Alcandre has conjured for Pridamant are actors in plays, the others project a tentativeness that told me they were acting, playing parts created for them. Wever is of that world, whether conversing with her mistress or the young swain, or delivering soliloquies and asides for our benefit. (I don’t know if Wever’s ever done Maria in Twelfth Night, but she’d be a natural. I bet she'd make a terrific Beatrice in Much Ado, too.)
(There seems to be an invasion of New York theater this season by members of the Nurse Jackie production company. Edie Falco—Nurse J her own self—was on Broadway with the recently-closed House of Blue Leaves; Rajiv Joseph, a writer on the show, had two plays on New York City stages, including his current Broadway début, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo; and now Merritt Wever in The Illusion, who plays Nurse Zoey on the Showtime series. The show tapes and is set in the city.)
The other cast members—Henry Stram mostly as Alcandre’s put-upon Amanuensis, Finn Wittrock as Pridamant’s son and the young lover in the visions, Amanda Quaid as the high-born maiden, and Sean Dugan as the swain’s rival—all take on the multiple roles with energy and verve. Wittrock and Dugan even engage in a rapier-and-dagger duel (excitingly choreographed by fight director Rick Sordelet). Getting to play three different Renaissance parts like that—a commedia role, a Restoration-like romantic farce, and a tragedy—in one production must be an actor’s dream gig, and I’d bet this is a popular script for college theaters—or it should be. Director Mayer needed to have tightened the performances a tad to keep them from seeming like late rehearsals or scene-study acting—not quite off, but not finished. (I’m being generous here: another possibility is that the actors just aren’t experienced enough with classical roles to be comfortable with period characters like these and are still figuring out the style. They sometimes seemed to be playing Naturalism rather than Neoclassicism. Among the younger actors and the director, only Wittrock lists a number of classical roles in his program bio.) Mayer also didn’t really reconcile the duality of Kushner’s script. The writer said he loves the “doubleness” of magic, and his play has a dual dynamic as well: the fantasy of the illusions and the sincerity and truth of the Alcandre-Pridamant interludes. The production becomes segmented at the joints and Mayer never found a way to segue from one into the other without a jolt and change of gears.
The interstitial scenes between Pridamant and Alcandre only seem to attenuate the proceedings since they are far less active and more cerebral than the visions. At the risk of diminishing the characters played by Margulies and Smith, for all the good work those actors do, theatricality demands that the play move more quickly from illusion to illusion without so much delay. The greatest deficit to this production, though, isn’t in the performances at all, but in Kushner’s adaptation. I don’t know how long Corneille’s original runs, but the almost-2½-hour length of The Illusion is at least 20 minutes too much. I said that Kushner was besotted with language, an attribute evident in all three plays in the Signature’s season. (Angels took two plays totaling over seven hours and IHG was 3½ hours long.) He really needs someone to snap him out of his logorrhea—he needs an editor. First, the dramatist added a whole scene to the French original (one so long it had to be split between act one and act two), then each of the scenes goes on way too long and could all stand some serious trimming. The New Yorker sums Kushner’s weakness up nicely: “[A]s a genre parodist, he is nimble but lacking in urgency. . . . [The Illusion is] the work of a poet in search of his true subject.”
[The Illusion marks not only the last show of the Signature Theatre’s Tony Kushner season, the company’s 20th, but the final production at its longtime base, the Peter Norton Space at 555 W. 42nd Street. If all goes according to plans, the Signature Theatre Company will reopen in February 2012 in its brand-new, Frank Gehry-designed space, the Signature Center, housing three theaters, two rehearsal studios, and administrative offices, at 440 W. 42nd Street, within the new highrise building that will be known as MiMA (for “Middle of Manhattan”), occupying an entire city block on 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues. Signature’s first Residency One playwright in the new Signature Center will be Athol Fugard.]