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A Spanish Play

Theatre Reviews by Matthew Murray

The old saying that plays are never finished, only abandoned, has seldom rung more true than with A Spanish Play. Yasmina Reza's latest meditation on meditation, which David Ives has translated from the French and which John Turturro has directed for Classic Stage Company, is so sloppy, jagged, and interminable, there are countless minutes you find yourself wondering if this major Off-Broadway company has somehow accidentally staged a first draft. Yet it's also strangely engrossing, never failing to hold your interest even while frequently failing to pique it.

Contradictions this severe would torpedo most plays into unwatchability, and they do A Spanish Play very few favors: There are plenty of occasions during the play when time and common sense grind to a halt altogether. Yet, when Reza's ideas and words are allowed to bleed through, they prove as worthy as they always have, revealing enough sullen beauty on display to command your attention.

Reza's subject, as was also the case for her Broadway plays Art and Life (x) 3, is perspective. Specifically, how an actor's attitude and other external forces inform his or her portrayal of a character, and how that character in turn influences that performer's outlook. So we have one set of characters, the actors (Katherine Borowitz, Zoe Caldwell, Linda Emond, Denis O'Hare, and Larry Pine), relating their experiences rehearsing a Spanish play about a family who can't communicate with each other. The family's two daughters (Borowitz and Emond) are both actresses, one successful and one floundering, coping with their own issues of art and success, with Emond's currently rehearsing a Bulgarian play about a piano teacher who can't speak her deepest thoughts to a beloved student.

This is, for the record, less complicated than it sounds. As the actors performing the Spanish play are barely characters themselves - they remain unnamed in the script - and their ruminations always occur in a vacuum (even when they're broadcast via a video camera), you're never in any real danger of confusing the performer with the performer-within-the-performer. This prevents the play from operating on multiple levels, at least simultaneously: Reza hasn't endeavored to fashion a theatrical Möbius Strip, where half the fun (ostensibly) is in unraveling her caprices, but rather layer the Spanish play and the narration about it to generate more tension in both as the evening progresses.

To be kind, it doesn't work well. With boring, borderline-anonymous actors dully droning about their impenetrable play (it has no plot to speak of; most of the conflict arises from arguments about dresses and apartment-building courtyards) and tackling it with about that much gusto, the headiest emotion you regularly encounter is an overwhelming desire for it all to end as quickly as possible. Turturro does everything in his power, mostly by pacing it conservatively enough to accommodate a space shuttle landing, to ensure that never, ever happens.

But in between the meaningful looks, pregnant silences, and avant-garde horrifics (Denis O'Hare delivers part of one scene seated on a toilet), an atmosphere of reluctant romance develops within the Spanish play. As it envelops more and more of the proceedings, the actors' words adopt a new, softer edge suggesting the words they use to push each other apart can actually bring them closer together. Maybe language really can conquer all.

While much of Ives's translation is halting and uncertain, it comes into its own with Emond's character, particularly when she's rehearsing the scenes for her Bulgarian play. The unspoken heartbreak Emond conveys with words that outwardly (if tentatively) deny emotional involvement taps the core of Reza's philosophy of the actor's mental processes, which cracks the shell of artifice laid before us and reveals a recognizable human being onstage.

Emond, though, is the only one who makes that connection. O'Hare plays a slightly gentler variation of the neurotic he plays in nearly every show, which isn't right for either the overeager meta-actor he plays outside the play-within-the-play or his henpecked character within it; four-time Tony winner Caldwell is so stately and reserved she seems to be auditioning for the stage version of Oscar contender The Queen, rather than embodying a passionate older woman rediscovering love and sex in her waning years. Practically everyone plods through their dialogue looking and sounding as restless as most in the audience probably feel.

It's hard to say whether that's because a show written about and for navel-gazing theatre folk can't easily captivate ordinary people (unless it's something truly vivacious, like Noises Off), because Turturro and Ives have forced too much weight on something best served light, or because Reza just didn't connect enough of the dots; probably it's a bit of all three, as magic is not completely absent. When it appears, A Spanish Play definitely charms; when it doesn't, it's a Herculean challenge just staying awake.


A Spanish Play
Through March 4
Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street
Tickets: 212.352.3101 or toll free at 866.811.4111, on line via www.classicstage.org or visit the theater in person at 136 East 13th Street.