It's the kind of thing you long for in any play: a single moment of undeniable, clarion truth. In the space of one minute in the new play at Playwrights Horizons written and directed by Richard Nelson, Rodney's Wife, you get such a moment. It's aimed directly at the heart of anyone who has ever lost someone close to them, and for the character at the center of that moment, a lovely unnamed woman with lengthy auburn tresses, it's about her mother, who died many years earlier, quietly vanishing from her life memory by memory.
A dozen sobering, complex thoughts are all contained in this single, perfect minute. Unfortunately, it's the last minute of the play. The 104 minutes preceding it are full of the kind of hackneyed sentiments and reheated plot twists that are as old as theatre itself and as false as that final moment is honest. As thoughtful, original, and touching as the play's parting sentiments are, the rubber-spined trifle of a play leading up to them is the kind of trying, deflating theatre most serious theatergoers can easily live without.
Not even Tony winner Maryann Plunkett can salvage much meaningful drama from her surroundings. But she gives it her all, and crafts a warm and memorable portrait of Eva, the sister of a troubled American film star, whose desperate search for love and meaning following her husband's death leads her to inadvertently destroy the fragile houses of cards around her. Cagily surveying events and commenting on them with a dry candor, Eva, may be routinely insulted and spurned, but always comes out on top even when (or especially when) the stakes are at their highest.
The problem facing Plunkett and the rest of the cast is that Nelson never lets those stakes get very high. Among the situations he's molded from the mud: Eva's brother Rodney (David Strathairn), is a cad and a drunk, contemplating bailing on the hapless spaghetti western he's currently filming; Rodney's second wife, Fay (Haviland Morris), married him to help care for his daughter Lee (Jessica Chastain), and now apparently cares for her too much; Lee's sudden engagement to Ted (Jesse Pennington) excites Rodney and Eva but riles Fay; and Rodney's manager Henry (John Rothman) stands on the sidelines and interjects advice from his slightly more mature perspective on marriage and the film business.
But after they all clash at Lee and Ted's impromptu engagement dinner, there's nothing for them to do but dither until - by dint of dramatic necessity - all their long-held secrets are revealed in the most painful ways possible, forcing uncomfortable confrontations and uneasy reconciliations. (You know, the usual.) This climaxes in a painfully forced encounter between Rodney and Fay that wastes the bulk of the play's third scene; it strives for emotionally raw, sexy, and even romantic, but achieves little more than half-baked and bloated.
Such a scene can only work if you care about the characters, but Nelson is too concerned with being intentionally evasive about his plot points to develop them in exciting ways. (He shouldn't have bothered - he sets up the revelations so poorly that they're anticlimactic by the time they finally arrive.) And with the exception of Plunkett - and occasionally Morris, who narrates the play in the brief prologue and epilogue - the performers are bland and colorless, incapable of bringing their characters to interesting life. Strathairn fares especially poorly, making his suddenly in-demand actor character about as lively and sensual as Susan Hilferty's celebration-of-dark-brown walls and uninviting furniture.
Hilferty fares a bit better with the costumes she's designed, and David Weiner's lights nicely establish the piece's suffocating mood, but the production never feels at all evocative of its supposed 1962 Italian villa setting. Nor does it have enough light touches to make the dreary predictability and repetitiveness of Nelson's writing bearable; Nelson the director never prevents Nelson the writer from running in the same shallow, emotional circles. (Just try to count the number of times in the first scene that Fay is hurt or threatened by not being invited.)
At least there's still that final minute, in which Nelson tries to tie the preposterous events of the play together and give them real dramatic meaning. He fails on both counts, and is scarcely more successful elsewhere in the play, but he does at least allow one of the characters in Rodney's Wife to experience one honest emotion. It's better than nothing, but it's too little, too late - one good minute does not a good play make.