Regional Reviews: Los Angeles
Tongue of a Bird
The other night I saw the new play at the Mark Taper Forum, Ellen McLaughlin's Tongue of a Bird, directed by Lisa Peterson. This production stars Cherry Jones (in her first major role since The Heiress), Ashley Johnson (of TV's "Growing Pains" and "Phenom"), Marian Deathtrap Seldes, "NYPD Blue" star Sharon Lawrence, and the worst professional actress I've ever seen, Diane Venora.
Poetic in language, Tongue of a Bird is the story of a search and rescue pilot, Maxine (Jones), looking for a lost girl in the snowy mountains of Maine. During her search, she headquarters herself at her Polish-immigrant grandmother's (Seldes) house and performs search missions with the lost girl's desperate mother (Venora). During the course of the show, we are introduced to the ghost of a young girl (Johnson) and the ghost of the protagonist's mother (Lawrence). Maxine, while searching for the young girl, discovers many of the answers to mysteries in her own life, and the journey becomes one of self-realization.
The work, simply put, must be beyond me, for I found it far too pseudo-poetic and wordy. The monologues, while aiming to be full of beautiful imagery, are mostly just boring. Cherry Jones gives a wonderful performance. Her ease on stage and her total lack of self-consciousness are terrific to watch. She is a master on stage. Marian Seldes is convincing and interesting as Maxine's challenging, brutally honest grandmother. Ashley Johnson is a surprisingly confident and refreshing breath of fresh air as the little girl, light and funny, especially during the scenes during which she appears on rollerblades. Sharon Lawrence, in a performance very reminiscent of McLaughlin's own portrayal of the Angel in both parts of Tony Kushner's Angels in America, plays the part of Maxine's dead mother in an eerie, though sometimes too long winded, manner. It's always nice to see Sharon Lawrence hanging around. And then there's Diane Venora, who plays the mother of the lost girl for whom Maxine is searching. Venora gives the singularly worst performance by a professional actor that I have ever seen on stage ... and I've seen hundreds of professional shows. I can't tell if she's simply a bad actress (though she was the recipient of a New York Film Critics Award and a Golden Globe nomination for the 1988 film Bird) or if she was just awfully directed in this role. Venora is so halting and hesitating in her speeches that she kills every scene she is in.
Many people left the show at intermission, and those of us who stayed kept hoping the show would get better. As intermission was ending, I encountered an older gentleman, and I said, "Come on, sir, it's time to go back in." He laughed and replied, "Do I have to?"
Unfortunately, this play - about a pilot with such lofty goals - fails to take flight. Tongue of a Bird continues at the Mark Taper Forum until February 7.