Well by Lisa Kron. Directed by Leigh Silverman. Scenic design by Tony Walton. Costume design by Miranda Hoffman. Lighting design by Christopher Akerlind. Original music & sound design by John Gromada. Hair & wig design by Tom Watson. Starring Lisa Kron, with Daniel Breaker, Saidah Arrika Ekulona, John Hoffman, Christina Kirk, and Jayne Houdyshell.
"It's not meant to be a well-made play," cries Lisa Kron, speaking of Well, the show she's written and is starring in, and which has at last opened on Broadway. And, she vociferously insists, it's not a play about her and her mother. No, she says time and time again, it's "a multicharacter theatrical exploration of issues of health and illness both in an individual and in a community." But your own eyes and ears tell you that this is a wild, and wildly affecting, comic ride in which there are apparently no rules. Which description is correct?
All of them. And none of them. Well is as deliciously unclassifiable now at the Longacre as it was when it opened downtown at The Public Theater two years ago. But the best part of the show - if one must pick just one from a host of superlative choices - is that specific details of what Well is or how it works don't really matter. All that does matter is that Kron, working in tandem with her equally visionary director, Leigh Silverman, has crafted a remarkable play that's lost hardly any of the luster that made it one of 2004's most exciting must-sees.
Perhaps - and this is a big perhaps - a shade of the original magic is gone. There's a minute possibility that the intimacy of the show's Off-Broadway home isn't well approximated by the comparatively cavernous Longagre. And there's a sliver of a chance that Tony Walton's new set, which depicts both the staunchly realistic living room of Kron's mother and Kron's own inchoate imagination, is needlessly - if not distractingly - elaborate.
Thankfully, Kron and her still-delectable costar, Jayne Houdyshell, routinely dispel any such concerns as soon as they arise. Whatever else might have changed (and precious little has), this is still a highly engaging play about the odd, occasionally debilitating relationships we have with ourselves and our families, and how we may be cured of those - or not - to become well, both inside and out.
Kron claims to be comparing her own history of illness, which culminated in a visit to an allergy clinic soon after she entered college, with that of her mother, Ann (Houdyshell). Ann has spent much of her life suffering from "a general inability to move," though that exhaustion didn't prevent her from striving tirelessly to make her neighborhood racially integrated. Kron narrates for us, ushering us between Ann's living room, the old neighborhood (lit by Christopher Akerlind to resemble sepia-toned home movies), and the allergy clinic, with the hopes of explaining why some people stay sick while others eventually get better.
But it doesn't take long for things to go awry, with Ann observing the action (usually enthroned on a La-Z-Boy recliner) and commenting on it, questioning it, and trying to improve it, to Kron's increasingly hysterical consternation. Kron promises that the show she's trying to present, which is endlessly complex and more than a little obtuse, simply needs to be allowed to play its course for all to become clear; Ann, though, is determined to point out its elisions and inaccuracies, for Kron, for us, and for Kron's equally bewildered castmates.
The other actors (John Hoffman, Saidah Arrika Ekulona, Daniel Breaker, and Chrstina Kirk) gradually fall under Ann's spell, too, soon realizing they can learn from her what they can't learn from her daughter: Kron is just elucidating concepts of wellness, Ann actually makes other people better. The disarray escalates and the conventions Kron establishes to tell her story waver and shatter until it's no longer entirely obvious what's real and what's not.
Even so, there's never a moment when all this doesn't make sense. Even when the action dissolves into utter bedlam, Silverman's staging is clear, clean, and controlled, and she knows just how far she can push the boundaries of both familiarity and surprise. She, Kron, and the designers (including costume designer Miranda Hoffman, whose outfits range from theatrical blacks to outrageously gaudy getups for Kron's flights into fancy), make sure you're never lost in the mock-pretentiousness in which Kron seems intent to strand you.
That would be impossible in any case, given the dynamite pairing of Kron and Houdyshell at the show's center. Kron, trim and modern, and Houdyshell, rotund and old-fashioned, provide a vivid picture of fierce generational contrast, a grudge match between Midwestern common sense and intentionally in-your-face downtown aesthetics. While Kron's manic good-naturedness is magnetic, you especially come to accept Houdyshell's eternally unflappable Ann, who always keeps a cool head regardless of the chaos she creates around her, as the kind of woman so devoted to others that she never notices that she can't do for herself what she can do for everyone else.
Well is a tribute to that spirit. Despite Kron's protestations, it is also absolutely a play about her and her mother, what they give to and take from each other, and what (if anything) that means. But it's as well a love letter to theatre's inherent inventiveness. And a coruscating star vehicle for two luminous talents. And a warmhearted drama about difficult, disparate subjects. And a chilly comedy about the control we can sometimes only maintain by relinquishing it. And... who can say what else?
In short, it's a terrific, all-consuming blaze of love, comedy, and theatricality. But what exactly is Well? It's... well; very well. That's all. And that's more than enough.