14 April 2012

'Painting Churches'

More or less on a whim, Diana, my frequent theater companion, and I picked up spot seats for Tina Howe’s Painting Churches for Wednesday, 4 April. (The production closed on 7 April.) The revival, staged by artistic director Carl Forsman for his troupe, the Keen Company, at Theatre Row’s Clurman Theatre, was the first in New York since the 1983 Off-Broadway première by Second Stage. (The play was aired on PBS as part of the American Playhouse series in 1986.) The last Howe play I’d seen previously was Primary Stage’s première of Chasing Manet in 2009 (see my ROT report on 30 April 2009); before that was Second Stage’s première of Coastal Disturbances in 1987. (I also saw the Atlantic Theater Company’s presentation of Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano and The Lesson in Howe’s translation in 2004.) I guess it’s fair to say I’m not a big Tina Howe fan—although I don’t have a problem with her work: I just haven’t found it all that compelling.

Painting Churches, reportedly a 1982 Pulitzer Prize finalist, is about an elderly patrician couple, Fanny and Gardner Church (Kathleen Chalfant and John Cunningham), who are packing up their Beacon Hill townhouse in Boston to move to a beach cottage on Cape Cod. Gardner is a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and Fanny is a Boston Brahmin; their daughter Margaret (Kate Turnbull) is a portraitist who lives in New York. Mags, as she’s called, has come to help her parents pack and to “do” them on canvas for her first one-artist show at a SoHo gallery in New York. As she spends several days with Gardner and Fanny, Mags observes the mental deterioration of her father and her changing relationship to her aging parents.

Forsman founded his company in 2000. “Keen Company produces sincere plays,” says the company’s website. “We believe that theater is at its most powerful when texts and productions are generous in spirit and provoke identification.” I presume that’s Forsman’s voice—the company’s indisputably his. (I’ve only seen a few productions by the troupe, but Forsman’s directed all of them. From the posters in the lobby, I see that a few others have shared directing assignments with him, but he gets the lion’s share.) He is, after all, the guy who asserted that radical views and acts are no longer rebellious: “Now I think true rebellion is saying anything optimistic or positive about humanity.” In what may be the company’s manifesto, Forsman concluded: “Hope is radical.” In any case, Painting Churches seems to meet the criteria: it’s hardly an envelope-pushing, standards-challenging play or production. And there’s not a thing wrong with that—as long as the play meets my basic requirements for good theater: it must do more than tell a story and it must do so in a theatrical way. (I’ve defined those premises on ROT before, so I think I’ll dispense with that this time.) “There’s something about reinventing and rediscovering yourself that feels beautiful to me,” Forsman’s said, and that, to a degree, is what happens to Mags.

The problem is that Howe’s conceived a script in which her three characters have two modes of communication: 1) In various combinations of the trio, they talk at one another or 2), they recount, sometimes at great length, a story from their past. (I suppose the dramatist contrived to have Gardner Church on the cusp of dementia and Fanny forgetful just out of course so that Mags has to relate all her humiliating memories to them for our benefit. The gimmick for Mags is easier—the stories her mother tells are usually from a time when Mags was young enough to have forgotten the details.) In any case, what we get is three self-absorbed people who don’t really connect to each other most of the time, circling one another for two hours without entering each other’s orbit often before spinning off into their own galaxies, whether it’s Gar’s study or Fanny’s happier days of prominence and social influence. I told Diana this all reminded me of a gag we used to have when I was 10 or 12: the Wawa bird. The Wawa’s a bird that lives at the North Pole and flies in ever-decreasing concentric circles going “wa-wa-wa-wa!” until it flies up its own ass. That’s what the characters of Painting Churches are: three Wawa birds.

In any case, there’s a lot of talk about poetry—Gar’s become enamored of Wallace Stevens—and suitable boys from Mags's youth she might have married and other inconsequentialities, as Mags tries to get her parents to sit for her while they’re packing up the house for the move to the Cape. (Diana remarked that the best moments in the play were when Cunningham recited poetry. I observed that two of the longest moments occurred when the characters gathered around an object we couldn’t see: a parakeet which Gar’d taught to recite “Grey’s Elegy” and Mag’s completed portrait.) A great deal of the dialogue, especially Fanny’s lines, is larded with clichés—a piece of silver will fetch “a pretty penny” and things are “at sixes and sevens”—which the actors carry off with aplomb, but which made the play seem all the more stale. As far as I was concerned, nothing of consequence happens, though Howe sets up a few minor crises (Fanny begins to dump the pages of Gar’s manuscript, his magnum opus, unceremoniously into boxes, for instance, and he has a conniption because it’s all out of order like so much trash). The characters don’t move from where they were at the beginning and no one seems to have learned anything—though apparently we’re supposed to feel that Mags has. Even if they had, I never felt any connection to any of them, much less sympathy, which is why I recalled the Wawa bird of my childhood. If the characters don’t connect to each other, how can they connect to us? I say they can’t. In any case they didn’t, at least not to me.

I’ve now seen a few productions from Keen and Forsman, not including those Ionesco one-acts that he directed for ATC (and which were pretty good theater). In 2003, I saw Keen’s revival of P. G. Wodehouse's 1927 comedy, Good Morning, Bill, which Forsman directed also. I recorded that it was an amusing bit of fluff—fun but meaningless—though well enough done. In 2009, I saw Forsman’s staging of the New York première of the French drama Heroes (see my ROT report on 26 March 2009), of which I didn’t think very highly. In all cases, the productions were relatively fine, but the material all lacked any real substance, point, or theme. This seems to be a hallmark of Keen shows, and it suggests a weakness in Forsman’s taste when it comes to selecting plays. The company staff listed in the program didn’t include a dramaturg or literary manager, and maybe that’s a manifestation of the problem: Forsman chooses properties on his own and doesn’t have anyone whispering in his ear. (I wrote an article for ROT on 22 September 2011 about vanity theaters, and this is one of the deficiencies that can occur when an artistic director is answerable only to himself.)

The rest of the production was of a similar quality—competent and nice-looking but insubstantial. Beowulf Boritt’s set, the Churches’ living room, was outlined by curtains for walls with practical floor-to-ceiling shelf alcoves, windows, and a doorway center right. It was so spare, though, that the process of “emptying,” a symbolic reflection of the play’s thematic action, is neither progressive nor impactful. It looked fine, however, a fragmentary or suggested Realism—but every time someone came or went through the doorway, it swayed, shaking the curtain “wall” along with it. As small a breach as this may have been, it consistently broke the illusion that we were watching real people in a real place. Apparently no one could secure the doorframe so it wouldn’t rock, or no one cared enough to bother. The costumes by Jennifer Paar were also well-conceived without being remarkable—except for Fanny’s collection of pillbox hats. (I don’t know where Paar found all those 1960s-looking little creations, or if the company got them made for Chalfant, but they were the most fascinating objects on the stage. I’m not sure if that qualifies them to be called “fascinators” or not.)

By the way: this little fillip raises another, small problem I had. Painting Churches was written in the early ’80s and the preem was certainly set in that period. The program for the Keen revival doesn’t indicate the time of the action, just the place, but I kept vacillating back and forth between the 1980s and the 2010s. Some references seemed clearly to suggest that the “present” was the ’80s, such as recollections of past events that evoked the ’50s or ’60s, too far back for a 20-something Mags; others seemed to have been updated to today, such as the shift from an art gallery on East 57th Street, as the original script had Mags’s solo début, to a SoHo show for this production, making the timing seem more contemporary. Now, this might not be a major significance to the success of the play, but it was confusing to me and seems just sloppy and careless. Oddly, I noted a similar glitch in Edward Albee’s revision of his Lady from Dubuque at the Signature Theatre last month (see my ROT report on 19 March), but as that was a better play, I dismissed it as an inconsequential curiosity. It was inconsequential here, too, but it bugged me more.

As far as the acting was concerned, both Chalfant and Cunningham captured their characters impeccably. Whatever else didn’t work at the Clurman, it wasn’t at the hands (or faces or voices) of these two actors. They put across the epitome of the doddering ex-professor and the waning Boston aristocrat—it wasn’t their fault that Howe gave them so little to play that they quickly became clichés. Nothing Gar and Fanny did or said was particularly unexpected (most, in fact, was predictable), but what was surprising was how perfectly Cunningham and Chalfant did and said it. The eccentricities displayed by Fanny were entirely natural coming from Chalfant, and the fear and confusion that flitted across Gar’s face when he didn’t understand something was frighteningly convincing (and, unhappily, I’ve seen it for real). The nuances and quirks the actors found made the two oldsters wonderful to watch, even if not much they were up to was especially interesting. The same can’t be said for Turnbull, a much less experienced performer, who never found a way to make Mags anything more than a stereotype—the self-absorbed artist, the distracted daughter, or whatever label you like. She was trying too hard, both as Mags and as the actress playing her. Since Howe never got the family to interact more than superficially, the detail work of Cunningham and Chalfant went for naught and their strength as performers never had a chance to lift up Turnbull’s acting or to draw more out of her than the basic behavior Howe wrote for Mags. (Michael Feingold of the Village Voice disagreed: he found that the cast displayed “handsome teamwork, each having one foot firmly anchored in reality, yet each seeming capable of floating off at any moment into the shadow area . . . .”) Obviously, Forsman’s directing was at fault in this, too, in his failure to provide guidance and . . . well, direction to attempt to overcome the deficits in the script. (My impression is that Forsman can’t or won’t do this, even if he sees the problem. My sense is that he doesn’t dig beneath the surface of the play’s “sincerity” for anything more than the words and stage directions provide. That may please some writers, but it’s not theater directing as far as I’m concerned. It’s traffic directing.)

In the New York Times, David Rooney agreed that Chalfant and Cunningham were “transfixing” as the elder Churches but described Turnbull’s Mags as “strained” and “actressy.” Rooney characterized Forsman’s production as “pedestrian” and “imbalanced” and said it “robs the play of some nuance.” Linda Winer, while overall praising the revival in Newsday, noted the “imbalance”, too, suggesting the blame maybe on Forsman’s directing. In the Daily News, Joe Dziemianowicz hit a similar note, writing, “the strokes aren’t just right and the balance of light and dark is out of whack,” adding that under Forsman’s directing, “what’s meant to [be] idiosyncratic and charming grates.” Elaborately praising Chalfant’s portrayal, David Sheward in Back Stage continued that Forsman “allows the balance to shift too much toward Fanny.” He concluded that the revival was “still a moving version of a complex work.” In Time Out New York, Adam Feldman called the Keen production “disenchanting,” saying that “Howe's play is a compendium of unpleasant noises, amplified in a plodding production.” He described the play’s structure as “alternating tiresome chatter about silverware and breeding with self-piteous family-therapy confrontations.” Calling Chalfant the production’s “greatest asset,” Elisabeth Vincentelli wrote in the New York Post that it “otherwise never quite finds its pulse." In the Voice, however, Feingold defended the revival, saying that is “has been unjustly ragged on for providing almost exactly what Howe seems to desire.” In Variety, Marilyn Stasio called the production “earthbound” because Howe’s “suggestive style of poetic impressionism fails to register”—though she concluded that the play is “still a stunner.”

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