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A Safe Harbor for Elizabeth Bishop

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

The difficulties one might face in effectively describing a piece of poetry pale next to the challenges of portraying the inspiration that led to the poem's creation. It's always easier to appraise or interpret collections of words than vague ideas that might be worthwhile, but are as intangible as the feelings poems themselves often describe.

So if a play can't illuminate both the poetry and the poet, what's the point? That's the sad question that comes to mind with A Safe Harbor for Elizabeth Bishop, the well-intentioned but hollow play by Marta Ges that's closing out the Primary Stages season. Not even Amy Irving's committed performance can make the show more than an intellectual exercise that would feel snugly at home in a creative writing textbook but has no place onstage.

The problem is the subject herself. Bishop (1911-1979), who won the 1956 Pulitzer Prize for her collection of poems North & South - A Cold Spring, earned her reputation for her keen ability to describe the physical world in vivid detail that also examined the way humanity viewed itself. Yet she also presented tantalizing glimpses of her own soul, if often so camouflaged that they merely seemed to be amorphous atmospheric decorations. This gives even her more straightforward poems a sense of mystery that one can't help but transfer to the woman herself, at least to some degree.

But Ges goes too far in demystifying Bishop. She focuses so mundanely on the nearly 20 years that Bishop spent in Brazil (the safe harbor in question, where she finally unlocked her sense of purpose) and her lengthy relationship there with architect Lota de Macedo Soares that she thrusts the poems into an even stronger vacuum.

We're shown a typically pedestrian Bishop, a middle-aged, asthmatic alcoholic who suffers from writer's block, and of course needs only the love of a good woman to set her free. Yet, she insists, "I see poetry everywhere," a declaration more eye-rolling than insightful, especially given the blandly scripted concerns of Elizabeth's falling off the wagon and the dissolution of her relationship with Lota following too many years of political upheaval.

Perhaps Bishop could find poetry in such prosaic situations, but Ges never allows us to do the same. Director Richard Jay-Alexander tries to compensate for this by giving the play a lightly dust-covered feel (the backdrop for Jeff Cowie's set is a cross between a yellowing tome and a faded watercolor painting) resounding with Literary Authenticity; this, unfortunately, does little to allow the star stand out.

Irving needs all the help she can get in particularizing the apparently patrician Bishop. She's dressed in casual, warm-weather clothing by costume designer Ilona Somogyi, but never feels at ease with us: Irving's tone is always lecturing, walking a fine, heretofore unexplored border between stolidity and sentimentality that cools down the already chilly Bishop even more. In her film and television work, Irving has long demonstrated the ability to embody strong women, and her Bishop certainly doesn't lack for strength.

There aren't, however, enough cracks in her stony faade to make her eventual collapses believable. Detachment is a character device that works for only so long before it becomes too difficult for the audience to make leaps of faith. By the time the play's climax finds Bishop in a drunken stupor, with her relationship with Lota is collapsing in around her, we've become too inured to Irving's one-level emotions to accept this as the same woman we've seen for the past hour.

This is partially Ges's point, that outward appearances deceive, that Bishop's art of cutting to something's inner truth by dissecting its outer shell is nowhere near as easy as it might appear; with human beings, most of us just can't see beneath the surface. The show's biggest problem is that, too often, neither can Irving.

But when she's allowed to retreat into Bishop's poetry, which happens several times, Irving movingly connects with Bishop's soul in ways jaggedly at odds with her disaffecting work elsewhere. Bathed in these moments by golden spotlights from lighting designer Russell Champa, Irving implicitly understands not just Bishop's words, but the several layers of greater meaning beneath them that do what Ges is otherwise unable to: reveal the artist behind the art. Only in these brief scenes do A Safe Harbor for Elizabeth Bishop and Elizabeth Bishop herself come truly to life.


A Safe Harbor for Elizabeth Bishop
Through April 30
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral