THE BLUE ROOM

Theatre Review by Fergus McGillicuddy

NEW YORK - December 20, 1998

In the 70s and 80s, British playwright David Hare was represented on Broadway by, among others, Plenty, a play about a woman who served in the French Resistance during World War II but found only disillusionment in post-war Britain, and The Secret Rapture, in which a Margaret Thatcher-like M.P. took advantage of her sister's goodness, with tragic consequences. In 1995, Lincoln Center Theatre presented Hare's Racing Demon, one of a trilogy of plays critical of institutions - Racing Demon (religion), Murmuring Judges (the legal system), and Absence of War (political parties) - which received a competent, workmanlike production and garnered generally favorable, if reserved, reviews for the play and kind words for the superior performances of the ensemble cast.

In 1996 we were treated to the Royal National Theatre production of Hare's Skylight, a play less political than his trilogy, which focused on the failed relationship of two former lovers who meet again. Critics were impressed by the play and overwhelmed by the astonishing performances of Michael Gambon and Lia Williams. Skylight enjoyed a highly successful, if limited run.

This year we've already had the Almeida Theatre Company production of The Judas Kiss, Hare's less than convincing spin on Oscar Wilde the man. The play itself suffered from comparison with a number of other plays about Wilde in performance at the time. Even the presence of Liam Neeson couldn't keep the theatre filled for the limited run.

Currently, we have the Donmar Warehouse production of Hare's The Blue Room, about which more in a moment.

In March of 1999, Lincoln Center Theater will present the newly knighted David Hare, himself, with his fluent, engrossing, often funny, but ultimately somber monologue Via Dolorosa, set for a five month run at the Booth Theatre, fresh from a SRO, five-week debut at London's Royal Court Theatre last fall. Hare isn't just a playwright, he's also an astute and inquisitive journalist and reporter. In Via Dolorosa he describes his recent trip to both Israel and the Palestinian territory, recounting his conversations with both Jews and Arabs and offering his own insights and impressions. Via Dolorosa is something more than a lecture, but less than a play, and definitely not a conventional drama.

Then in April we'll have a limited engagement of Hare's Amy's View at the Barrymore Theatre. A play about the long-term struggle between a strong mother and her loving daughter, Amy's View will star Dame Judi Dench as Esme Allen - a well-known actress at just the moment when the West End is ceasing to offer actors a regular way of life - the role which earned Dench a nomination for an Olivier award earlier this year. (Two performances of the highly successful three month run of the West End production of Amy's View were canceled to allow Dench to attend the Oscars in Los Angeles when she was also nominated as 'Best Actress' for her performance in the film Mrs Brown.)

David Hare is one of Britain's most highly regarded, successful, and prolific playwrights. He is, or soon will be, the most concurrently produced playwright on Broadway. Publicists have already started to hype the fact that with Via Dolorosa and Amy's View, Hare will have three new plays opening on Broadway in the same season. They also quickly point out that, counting last season's Judas Kiss, he will have had four new plays open on Broadway within a 12 month period.

And don't forget about the money part; while Judas Kiss may have been less than satisfying, and the fate of Via Dolorosa remains to be seen, The Blue Room, with its four million dollars in advance ticket sales is a wild financial success by anybody's standards and Amy's View, thanks to the presence of Dame Judi, promises to quickly surpass Blue Room in advance sales and be the one guaranteed critical hit of the spring.

So why don't American audiences love David Hare? And just what are those nasty little comments audience members are whispering to each other about The Blue Room as they leave the Cort Theatre?

The Blue Room

The Vienna police closed down the first public performance in 1921 of Arthur Schnitzler's Reigen (better known as La Ronde after the 1950 Max Ophuls film version, and here, in David Hare's free adaptation, titled The Blue Room) and prosecuted Schnitzler for obscenity. Looking back, it's easy to see why. Schnitzler's play was certainly a daring idea for the time, a daisy chain of sexual encounters in which A sleeps with B who sleeps with C and so on until we finally work our way back to A. However, ever since the film version was released, the play itself has almost always failed to live up to its risque reputation. In performance it usually seems mechanical, cynical and to a generation of theatergoers all too aware of the consequences of sexually transmitted diseases, about as sexy as a late night public service AIDS commercial.

Reigen seems an odd choice for adaptation and updating by David Hare. Especially since his adaptation, in one very specific way, is far inferior to the original. To put it bluntly, The Blue Room is boring.

Nicole Kidman does the best she can. From cheap tart to French au pair to sophisticated matron to coke-sniffing model to femme fatale of an actress, her performance would be more impressive had her five roles not all been cut from the same pattern and apparently tailored to her as yet not fully developed abilities. Still, her accents and attitudes are near perfect, her quick costume and character changes - as are Iain Glen's - are executed with a theatrical flair, and there is no getting around the fact that she is gorgeous and her beauty makes her limitations as an actress easier to forgive.

Iain Glen, an accomplished actor, gets a bit more out of his set of roles, from London cab driver through hilariously affected playwright. Unfortunately, playing against Kidman's limitations constrains what could be a finely nuanced performance while allowing him a few too many over the top moments.

The problem with The Blue Room is the play itself, or to be specific, the dialogue. David Hare writes dialogue. Lots and lots of it. The characters in a Hare play talk incessantly, and when they speak, they bloody well expect the other characters and the audience to pay attention. What the characters say means much more than what the characters do. In a Hare play, plot and character actions take a back seat to the words; the words are what give meaning and significance to the performance.

We Americans, as a rule, don't really like listening to lots of words. It forces us to pay attention and try to understand what's going on. On the whole, that's not something we're very good at. Oh, we can do it if it pays off in lots of laughs, or, even better, if we know there is a song or production number coming along in just a few minutes. (After all, this is Broadway, isn't it?) But, to sit, even for only an hour and a half, and listen to all that talk, talk, talk, with very few laughs and no songs? It's cruel punishment!

But, we are not totally hopeless, although we do need help. Give us actors who can interpret all those words and make us understand what's going on, and we'll pay attention all right. A David Hare play, to be successful in America, absolutely requires great actors. This is why Skylight with Michael Gambon and Lia Williams, two astonishing actors, was such a success. This is why Amy's View with Dame Judi Dench, one of the few great actors of our time, will probably wipe out all memory of The Blue Room come Tony time.

Ultimately then, the problem with The Blue Room is us, the American audience. We are bored with, and unforgiving of, anything less than the absolute best. And at $650 - or even $35 - a ticket, we think the best is what we should get.

The Blue Room
By David Hare
Staring Nicole Kidman and Iain Glen
Directed by Sam Mendes
A limited engagement of 111 performances.
1 hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission.
Cort Theatre
138 West 48th Street
New York, NY 10036
(between Broadway & 6th Avenue)
Latecomers will not be seated after the first 11 minutes of the performance.
Tuesday through Saturday at 8 PM, Wednesday & Saturday at 2 PM, Sunday at 3 PM.