The Habit of Art
Alan Bennett's play The Habit of Art, now at Washington's Studio Theatre, imagines a late-in-life meeting between two 20th-century intellectual titans, poet W.H. Auden (Ted van Griethuysen) and composer Benjamin Britten (Paxton Whitehead). Friends and collaborators in their younger years, the two men later became estranged and their lives moved in divergent directions.
What, then, is the purpose of the play? Bennett's witty, philosophical dialogue counts for a great deal, as does the presence of two long-established actors who understand both nuance and the broad gesture, but mostly it's an investigation of the power of theater to educate, inform and entertain. Director David Muse ably navigates the sometimes convoluted currents of the action: the meeting between Auden and Britten is actually the subject of a play within a play, and the setting is a rehearsal room at London's National Theatre.
The playwright (Wynn Harmon) has dropped in for the rehearsal of his play, Caliban's Day, which brings together Auden, now an elderly windbag with poor personal hygiene, and Britten, whose interest in chorus boys may have inspired his choice of Thomas Mann's "Death in Venice" as the basis of his final opera. Joining them are Humphrey Carpenter (Cameron Folmar), biographer of both Auden and Britten, and Tim (Randy Harrison), a rent boy with no knowledge of either literature or opera.
To be sure, Bennett has found lots of complications among the layers of meaning. Auden often repeated the same stories by this point in his life, but Fitz, the actor playing him, has trouble remembering his lines. Donald, the actor who plays Humphrey, is so determined to beef up his part that he appears at one pointto the playwright's dismayin drag and playing the tuba. The director, who is unexpectedly absent from this rehearsal, has imposed his own ideas on the material, leading to the question "Why does the furniture talk?"
Another part of the fun is seeing actors backstage, as it were. Because some of the cast members are not at rehearsal since they're doing the matinee performance of another play, Whitehead occasionally steps in as a servant and unflappable stage manager Kay (Margaret Daly) plays some small roles. Bennett also provides a charming bit of usually unseen stage magic: a rehearsal pianist (Alfredo Pulupa) who provides the actual music while the actors appear to play.