The way Marian Seldes lights up the stage, it's no great stretch accepting her as a sultry Hollywood starlet who once lit up the silver screen.
In Play Yourself, Harry Kondoleon's play now appearing at the Century Center for the Performing Arts, Seldes's character Jean was never a big star. But she acted like one, living high and fast while she could and then leaving more or less on her own terms. Seldes embodies her beautifully, decked out in clothes (courtesy of Catherine Zuber) and makeup that suggest a siren who could never die, a vamp who could never let go of her power, even after it let go of her.
Seldes is not, however, the only good thing about Play Yourself. She may be the best thing, giving a stirring performance her three costars can't quite match, but even so, Elizabeth Marvel, Ann Guilbert, and Juan Carlos Hernandez do very well in their own right, a more than ample supporting cast for the final reels of the movie of Jean's life.
What happens in those reels both plays on established ideas and creates new ones. The play's title derives from the instructions Jean always received from her directors about how to play scenes, and eventually serves as instructions to all the play's characters. Jean is tracked down by the idolizing movie fan Selma (Guilbert) who needs to know everything about her, must contend with her misguided and untrusting daughter (Marvel), and face some ugly truths about herself and the attitude that decades of Hollywood memories imprinted on her.
Most of the time, this is accomplished with delightful bits of humor or shocking moments of clarity; the play is generally well constructed and makes its points for the characters (and the audience) imaginatively time and time again. As directed by Craig Lucas, the show exists simultaneously in both the real and film worlds. The meeting of stage and film techniques almost always works, and nowhere does Lucas's invention become more pronounced than in his deft handling some of Jean's dialogue scenes ("I'm going into a monologue").
Still, there's something oddly comforting about a prop man on a ladder creating weather effects at the start of the show, or the extra-visible lights changing the set into a sound stage. Jean's sanctuary, for example, looks suspiciously more like a dressing room than a bedroom. John McDermott's set, aided by Ben Stanton's lights, always creates just the right effect - confining, as any movie set might seem when not viewed on film, but more than big enough for the characters.
Play Yourself is at its best when it embraces these concepts and just lets its story happen. The first and the latter part of the second act (with an utterly priceless monologue delivered by Guilbert) are solid examples of how to apply an unusual concept onto a stage piece. The show falters, almost perilously so, at the beginning of the second act, when the gears begin working too hard for their own good.
In order to get the show where he needed it, Kondoleon had to sacrifice a little of the truth and strength of his characters. Love at first sight, while not always a bad plot idea, doesn't work for Marvel's self-loathing Yvonne or the counselor (Hernandez) who hopes that his love for her will change her life. That Yvonne's later changes are due partially to another factor is also telling; the act and the play eventually recover, but it's an unfortunate lapse, and an untruthful inclusion in a play that's about avoiding exactly that.
The rest of the time, Play Yourself holds up very well, its humor and emotion administered in carefully controlled doses by its skilled cast and director. It's an entertaining, moving, and very surprising show, one that serves to assist us in putting the movies of our own lives in clearer focus.
New York Theater Workshop