Enough is enough. It’s time to form a support group for directors who are afraid of the shows they take on. While much of the initial membership would be open to heated debate, it now appears that’s the only way to rescue classic plays from directors too frightened of certain works’ inherent qualities to just present them as their authors intended. For proof, you need look no further than Tina Landau, whose new production at the Vineyard Theatre is drowning in fear of the straightforward and heartfelt.
The play is Mary Rose, and its author is J.M. Barrie. If it seems unthinkable to you that the man who wrote Peter Pan, perhaps one of the most innocent and open-handed plays of the last 150 years, could set anyone shaking in his or her boots, join the club. But faced with the story of Mary Rose, which like Peter Pan examines the uncertainties of aging and death from the perspectives of both children and adults, Landau was apparently unable to stare it in the eye, and has utterly prevented both the characters and us from becoming immersed in the play’s world.
She’s done this by siring a new character, a narrator played by Keir Dullea, who does nothing but speak the play’s numerous, lengthy, and frequently florid stage directions. Mellifluously composed as many of these often are - Barrie, beyond even George Bernard Shaw, considered stage directions literature unto themselves - they are, in no way, dramatic. When recited to describe action, or worse major plot points, they defuse the legitimate dialogue’s ability to entertain, engage, or enrage us.
Does anyone need to hear, rather than see, “After a moment, he sets off upon his quest carrying the candle, which takes with it all the light of the room”? (This is followed by the equally devastating “He is visible on the other side of the darkness, in the little passage and opening the door beyond.”) Each of Dullea’s utterances - and they’re legion - bolts us to our chairs in an Off-Broadway theater in 2007 rather than freeing us to Barrie’s spell, and robs the cast of the opportunity to project moments, both tragic and triumphant, that are why most of us attend the theatre in the first place.
The true crime here is that Mary Rose is packed with such moments, which gracefully touch on many of the same universal curiosities that have made Peter Pan a classic. But whereas that play focuses on a young boy who refuses to grow up, this one centers on a young girl, the Mary Rose of the title (played by the lovely Paige Howard, daughter of film director Ron Howard), who isn’t given a choice. Her travels to an island in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides grant her the dubious gift of skipping over time, once a few weeks and later a great many years, during which she doesn’t age.
Her loved ones, of course, are not so lucky. Her parents (Betsy Aidem and Michael Countryman) are one issue, but the young sailor (Darren Goldstein) she marries and soon abandons to the wonders of potential immortality is something else entirely. Mary Rose’s trials are juxtaposed with those of a sad seaman (Richard Short), who after World War I becomes interested in the house that belonged to Mary Rose’s family some three decades earlier, and who has an inexplicably strong connection with its prevailing ghosts. (Set designer James Schuette and lighting designer Kevin Adams capture all the right storybook qualities in the ethereal drawing room that is the play’s primary locale.)
One would think that Mary Rose’s physical, spiritual, and temporal separations from her family would speak to anyone on the most basic of levels: If you’re the only one capable of living forever, what does having another’s love really mean? Yet Mary Rose’s vanishings, reappearances, and temptations, with their psychological ramifications deconstructed in Dullea’s lines rather than Howard’s performance, are dramatically inert. They call far more attention to the suspense and confliction missing than the tinkling underscoring Barrie’s stage directions add.
Nothing quite trumps the finale, when Dullea’s explications of cosmic mysticism are accompanied by trembling actors awaiting their next cues with frozen bodies and facial expressions, but any number of other scenes come close. Nearly everyone speaks, moves, and poses as though imitating figures painted on a porcelain plate, as though their lifelessness will approximate a divine spark if they push hard enough. Only Howard, who somehow mixes naïve youthfulness and suave sophistication into a potent portrait of a girl out of place in her time, gives a performance worth noting. Dullea, playing a living tape recorder, is so hampered by his non-role that any discussion of his acting is counterproductive; most everyone else is precious to the point of nauseating.
It’s not hard to understand why. Robbing an actor of his ability to create tension in his character’s words transforms him from an artist to an automaton, and a stageful of robots is exactly what Landau has created. Mechanical men and women, though, cannot articulate essential human truths; that’s the exclusive domain of bona fide people. Barrie’s stage directions were to assist the reader in experiencing on the page something akin to the enchantment gifted actors can summon onstage.
But stage directions can never substitute for theatrical craft, and to assume so is to violate the playwright’s true intent. Would a Landau production of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale involve an actor screaming “Exit, pursued by bear!”? Would her Der Ring des Nibelungen at the Met climax in Placido Domingo intoning, “The Rhine overflows its banks, and then flames consume Valhalla”? In so closely equating a living thing with a piece of paper, Landau has made Barrie’s vibrant play floppier and more two-dimensional than had previously seemed possible.
Photo 1: Keir Dullea and Paige Howard