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Too Much Sun

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Linda Lavin
Photo by Carol Rosegg

With her arms arched high above her head and the blood red, dangling-with-spangles dress she's wearing draping off her body like a waterfall, Audrey Langham at first glimpse resembles a searing sunset. The way her bulging eyes pierce into you almost seems intended to induce blindness, too, as though she wants to remind you every second that you're powerless without her. So what if there's something off-kilter, almost comical, about her appearance? She commands your attention, if not your respect, so abandon ye any hope of resisting.

Not that there was much danger of that anyway. Given that Audrey, the central figure of Nicky Silver's new play Too Much Sun, which just opened at the Vineyard Theatre, is played by Linda Lavin, irresistibility is more or less assured from the get-go. As she did in Silver's The Lyons, which opened on Broadway two years ago, Lavin twists and recasts the playwright's classic archetype of the monstrous mother into something that's both more sympathetic and more dangerous, making the potentially one-dimensional Audrey into someone who is forever coolly in control of who she's playing.

You probably won't have it quite so easy. That epic image of woman as a celestial body, which opens the show, is shattered mere seconds later. Audrey, you see, is as an actress—a famous one—who's trying and failing to survive the final rehearsal as the headliner of a high-concept Medea in Chicago. She can't quite get past one speech that's loaded with speed-bump phrases like "hymeneal pomp" and "genial couch," that dress, the lighting's trapezoidal-drunk gobos, the condescending director, you name it.

But Audrey's nonstop protestations ring as much with awareness as with frustration: at the power she holds, at the people who are working because of her, at the thousands of dollars at stake. So her berating the artistic choices in which she's drowning are, like everything else she says, calculated, awash with knowledge similar to Medea's of mysteries that no one else can share—and that, after accumulating for a lifetime, have begun weighing her down. So when she sweeps offstage in a "huff," is it real or is it fantasy? More important, can you even tell the difference?

The premise of Silver's play, which has been sharply directed by Mark Brokaw, is that you can't—with her or anyone else. Everyone in Audrey's world is masquerading behind one illusion or another, playing a role for someone's benefit (or so they assume). And when Audrey spins into the Cape Cod summer home (the handsome set design is by Donyale Werle, the convincingly summery lighting by David Lander) of her daughter, Kitty (Jennifer Westfeldt), and Kitty's husband, Dennis (Ken Barnett), the masks begin revealing themselves—and, of course, falling—faster than anyone can stop them.

Ken Barnett and Jennifer Westfeldt
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Kitty, for example, is a teacher who hates teaching. A vision of loveliness, she so captivated Dennis that they married after knowing each other for only six weeks, a fact that might be responsible for the rocky roads their marriage is traveling down now. Audrey's presence doesn't help (whenever she's around, Kitty can't stop eating—she once gained 30 pounds during a two-week visit), especially as she apparently falls for the next-door neighbor, Winston (Richard Bekins), and Winston's handsome son, Lucas (Matt Dickson), finds excellent reasons to draw Dennis away from Kitty, too.

Just how real any of these relationships is or should be is the overall concern of Too Much Sun, and what provides the twists and turns that are its most compelling feature. Seeing how the lies everyone tells—some professionally, all personally—affect the others and the world around them is a meaty concept from which Silver derives plenty of mileage. Better yet, he's able to maintain it to the very end of the second act, by which point all the avoidances and obfuscations have revealed their full, tragic capability several times over for nearly everyone.

Unfortunately, only Audrey has the scope of a fully chiseled character. She scales both comedic highs and self-searching lows as she struggles to come to grips with a career she no longer understands, and is enhanced greatly by the bitter irony that she despises exactly what she herself practices: "I don't have to pretend anymore or prove anything to anyone," she spits, not recognizing how incorrect that is. No one else is similarly nuanced, and their surface-level problems are vastly less interesting. With Kitty and Dennis too accepting of their joint lot, Lucas a low-dreaming pretty boy, and agent assistant Gil (Matt Dellapina) little more than a bleary dope who's come to retrieve Audrey, there's not much else to grasp onto.

Except that is, for Winston, who's apparently marshaling secrets of his own; it's enough of a hook for Bekins to present a man of resigned strength, who proves to be Audrey's ideal partner if only because he's not kidding himself about who he is or what he wants. It's a simple but adroit performance that really works, and is free of the broader, more desperate strokes visible from Dellapina, Barnett, Dickson, and especially an over-antic Westfeldt, who are stuck trying to find levels where not many exist.

Lavin does not have the same trouble. She masterfully blends Audrey's contradictions—an actress who has no interest in being one, a mother who has no interest in being one, a wife-to-be who has no interest in being one, and so on—into a shimmering portrait of a life in flux, so real that you can practically see her straining against her own skin. Lavin ensures that, when we're in hysterics at Audrey's callousness one moment and chilled to the bone by the heartaches she's endured the next, it's always clear the two women are one and the same.

That they are able to coexist may not add up on paper, but seeing them in the flesh it makes sense. If only that were true of the rest of Too Much Sun.

Too Much Sun
Through June 22
Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15 Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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