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Still Life

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Frederick Weller and Sarah Paulson.
Photo by Robert J. Saferstein.

"Life is damage control," says one character to another late in Still Life, the new play that MCC is presenting at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. The show's author, Alexander Dinelaris, spends two hours proving that point with results that are, at their finest, heart-stopping. His characters are all struggling with questions of life and death, and reach some conclusions that, whether spanning the globe or only two hearts, can be profound. Unfortunately, Dinelaris hasn't sufficiently realized that playwriting itself can also be damage control, and fallout from the rockier moments prevents the whole show from being as transcendent as its best scenes.

The play is at its sharpest and clearest when Dinelaris focuses his dramatic lens most squarely on Carrie Ann (Sarah Paulson) and Jeff. She's a celebrated photographer whose output and outlook have drastically diminished since her father's death; he's a "trend" analyst who's so moved by her shots of dead animals that she displays at a show that he has to meet her. His life has been scarred by a loveless upbringing, and hers by endless comparisons with her not-up-to-her-level photographer father. Neither is ready to open up fully to someone else, but once they start they discover the choice was the right one. But when challenges arise - Carrie is offered a career-vital shoot in Africa she's positive she's not ready for, Jeff has recently been undergoing a frighteningly inconclusive set of medical tests - they learn that some wounds are too deep to ever heal completely.

Their story never moves in quite the direction you expect, but Dinelaris plays no games with either them or you during the journey. He's ruthlessly considered every choice: the structural (if not specific) similarities of the couple's backgrounds; the way they both capture reality, if by very different methods; the difficulties that getting their lives back on track will present. And he very movingly conveys how the two deal with not just the fathers who have defined them, for better or worse, but also with the practical impossibilities of chiseling through the other's veneer of a lifetime of low self-esteem.

Dinelaris metes out the microscopic victories so smartly that each new advance, up until the one that defines the ultimate boundaries of their growing feelings, plays as a cathartic triumph. Both Weller (best known for playing the violent redneck in Take Me Out) and Paulson (Laura in David Leveaux's misbegotten 2005 revival of The Glass Menagerie) can seem cold and detached onstage, but here that potential liability is a huge asset. In their scenes together, the two form an emotional echo chamber that traps and amplifies what little heat there is, until all iciness has been melted away. Weller floods Jeff's monumental second-act decisions about control and survival with the pain of losing something precious far too quickly; Paulson alternately blossoms and withers as Jeff's light finds ever-new ways to touch her. They're two luminous performances.

Matthew Rauch.
Photo by Robert J. Saferstein.

But Carrie Ann and Jeff are only one part of Still Life, and Dinelaris is less successful when he turns his tripod away from them. A secondary story concerns Jeff's boss, Terry (Matthew Rauch), who runs headfirst into life rather than away from it as Carrie Ann and Jeff have. His entire existence is one impetuous decision after another, whether firing a worker who's been rendered psychologically helpless after his divorce, pursuing frequent and indiscriminant sex with every woman he can find, and snorting cocaine as if it were air. He's the one who utters that damage control line, and he does it in the same scene he proves to a semi-slutty bartender (played by Kelly McAndrew) that serving drinks and serving up your own body aren't that much different when cash is on the line.

Rauch plays Terry with a diesel-powered libidinous abandon, making him dangerously and wonderfully decadent. But aside from repudiating Carrie Ann's and Jeff's worldviews (if not attractively), Terry's doings are too incidental to the story as a whole to have the gut-punch impact of comparison Dinelaris undoubtedly wants. Similar problems crop up with the other supporting characters, who include Carrie's self-concerned colleague, Joanne (Adriane Lenox); Jeff's happily married friend, Sean (Ian Kahn), a doctor only for purposes of diagnosing and curing exposition deficiencies; and Carrie Ann's father (Dominic Chianese), who appears in a few flashback scenes. They're there to provide minor obstacles to overcome, add little to our understanding of who or why Carrie Ann and Jeff are.

In conflating issues of emotional and artistic liberty, Dinelaris pulls too many strings to too little effect, at least when Carrie Ann and Jeff aren't at the center of the frame. In fairness, director Will Frears has not shepherded a supple production: He hasn't figured out how to make the snapshot-like scenes not feel sluggish, a confusing scenic concept (by David Korins) makes use of too much marble for these workaday people, and generally dim lighting (by David Weiner) contributes to an unnecessarily dreary atmosphere that can't abate entirely once the characters learn how to escape it. But throughout there's the inescapable sense that Dinelaris is just trying to say too much.

This is indirectly confirmed in a Playbill note, in which Dinelaris admits that he lost his father to cancer and was artistically stifled for months after, until lured back to existence by discovering the photographs of Tamara Staples. Still Life, then, is his attempt to make sense not just of life and death but his own relationship to both. It's not surprising that the play is so captivating when he does that most openly, but it suffers as a whole from the peripheral fuzziness that obscures the complete context in which Dinelaris asks and struggles to answer his questions.

Still Life
Through November 1
Lucille Lortel Theater, 121 Christopher Street between Bleecker and Bedford Streets
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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