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Circle Mirror Transformation

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Deirdre O'Connell and Peter Friedman
(with Tracee Chimo in the background)
Photo by Joan Marcus.

If you've never taken an acting class, you might find some of the characters' actions in Circle Mirror Transformation a bit bizarre. Lying on the ground, shouting out numbers from one to 10, trying not to overlap? Doing monologues in which they "play" their classmates? Sitting on the floor and telling lengthy stories using only one word per person at a time? This kind of thing just won't look sensible to anyone who's never done it, or thought too much about the craft of acting. And Annie Baker's new play at the Playwrights Horizons Peter Jay Sharp Theater is so stuffed with it, there's real potential for the uninitiated to feel like they're watching an ESL class rather than a theatre class.

That's the point, at least for the first hour or so of Baker's intense comedy: The five people enrolled in a creative drama class at a community center in Shirley, Vermont, are so skilled at holding back their words and feelings that the emotional fluency an actor requires may as well be Ancient Greek. Watching them stumble through a variety of exercises that have them miming explosions or molding their classmates into scenes from their life may be hilarious, especially as rendered by an astute director (Sam Gold) and cast of effortless comedians. But when they all start accepting themselves and getting into character, the play pays off in a big way, going far beyond the belly laughs it spends so much time convincing you are its only goal.

But first you need to get to know these people. The teacher, Marty (Deirdre O'Connell), is the philosophical, touchy-feely type, teaching her first adult class after years of working with children; her husband, James (Peter Friedman), who runs the center, is more reserved but willing to go along with anything. Schultz (Reed Birney) is a recently divorced furniture maker, and just as wooden as the chairs he produces. There's one real actress in the class: the young and beautiful Theresa (Heidi Schreck), who moved to Vermont a few months ago after tiring of the ultracompetitive New York scene. And there's one aspiring actress, the 16-year-old tomboy, Lauren (Tracee Chimo), who covets the role of Maria in her school's upcoming production of West Side Story, and thinks this class will help her nab it.

Heidi Schreck, Tracee Chimo, and Reed Birney
Photo by Joan Marcus.

All it does for anyone, however, is force them to reveal the stories, souls, and personalities they struggle every day to hide. Lauren's home life is a wreck, with her parents constantly fighting. Theresa is a constant flirt who likes older men, and draws no distinction between romantic relationships and the showmances she's used to from the theatre - something that riles the commitment-minded Schultz. Marty and James seem to have the perfect union, both at work and away from it, although James is currently fighting with his daughter (by his ex-wife) about a long-ago infidelity.

Though Marty's specific games are ideal for large groups of kids, who have a good chance of hiding behind anonymity and probably don't live very shocking lives, they becoming increasingly devastating for this group. When Theresa and James spend a few minutes staring at each other, each repeating a single word or phrase (hers is "goulash," his is "ak mak"), their nonsense utterances reveal far more than ordinary words would. When Schultz and Theresa must imbue innocuous phrases ("I want to go" and "I need you to stay") with scene-length meaning, the results are disastrous. And when each person is tasked with writing down a dark secret and reading one aloud at random, you can all but hear the crusts under their worlds of illusion crack apart.

Baker played games similar to these last year in Body Awareness, her play at Atlantic Stage 2 that explored the impact of a college's feel-good self-image program on people who weren't ready for it. But she's even more subtle and successful here, finding gleaming nuances in even the tiniest interactions that prove how not everyone is cut out for intense intimacy and honesty. Gold, working on David Zinn's pitch-perfect dance studio set, guides his actors to raucousness and insight with equal facility - he makes the most of Lauren's knack for always being in the wrong place at the wrong time, knows how to pull taut the invisible cords of tension that increasingly bind the characters, and transforms the sensitive, surprising final scene into an unexpected tearjerker.

And his cast is superbly chosen. O'Connell's special brand of artsy disconnection doesn't work in every show, but it's ideal here for a ripping apart a woman who can't divide her psyche up as easily as she thinks she can. Friedman masterfully navigates between James's deadpan comedy on the stage and dead-eyed seriousness in the wings. Birney's hopeless-Everyman archetype is uproariously right for the put-upon Schultz, who's apparently awaiting any and all opportunities to prove how ordinary he's not. The deceptive sophistication Schreck brings to Theresa keeps that character a delicious cipher through the final scenes, and Chimo is an unrepentant riot as the way-out-of-her-element Lauren looking for normalcy in the class and finding anything but.

Good as the performers all are separately, it's as an ensemble that they most flourish, telling you as much about the complex art of acting in general as they do their characters as individuals. You see it most in the facing-each-other games, including the one that gives Baker's play its title: One person begins a motion and a sound that everyone else mimics, someone adapts it into one that the others then copy, and so on. That game shows how little waves evolve into tsunamis, and how strength can become weakness in the blink of an eye - something the actors do every bit as effectively. It's the perfect metaphor for these people's lives, which are never exactly what they appear for long, but which speak unintended volumes when ignored. That makes Circle Mirror Transformation, even if it's based on activities no non-actor has ever done, a play everyone can relate to.

Circle Mirror Transformation
Through November 1
Playwrights Horizons Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 West 42nd Street
Running Time: 1 hour 50 minutes with no intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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