Thursday, April 19, 2007

Take the Stairs... please!

I find myself in an unaccustomed and somewhat confusing position: concerning the Transport Group production of The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, I am very much in agreement with Charles Isherwood, and in sharp disagreement with Michael Feingold.

As you should all know by now, you can't beat Feingold for dramaturgy, and on the topic of Inge's play he is as informative and insightful as always. Meanwhile, when I first read Isherwood's review I thought it was unnecessarily bitchy (I know, big surprise). But now that I've seen the production in question, I have to say Isherwood gets it right.

Here's Feingold: "If the production's look suggests 21st-century minimalism, the richly nuanced array of unspoken feelings that Cummings's actors supply evokes the Actors Studio style at its 1950s best, newly toned up for a more straightforward time." I liked the sound of that, but it's not what I saw last night. "A richly nuanced array of unspoken feelings" is exactly what was missing from Cummings's overlong, drearily paced, stiffly blocked production of this not especially subtle script. So I'm with Ish when he says, "If any true magic is to emerge in a staging of The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, I suspect the poetics of extraordinary acting would have to supply it," and I concur with his observation that extraordinary acting is not much on display in this production. In fact, I think the cast was overpraised by both Feingold and Isherwood, because in my opinion the actors on the stage can very easily be divided into 2 categories: Donna Lynne Champlin and everybody else. Champlin, so excellent in John Doyle's Sweeney Todd, was one of the main reasons I wanted to see this in the first place, and she's giving another fine, nuanced performance in Stairs. But there's only so much an actor can do without a little cooperation from her costars, and no one else in the cast comes remotely close to Champlin's level, not even Michele Pawk, whose characterization of Lottie is a trifle bizarre, and broad in all the wrong places, like Miss Hannigan wandered into the wrong play. And no one else in the cast does any better. (Side note: Liz Mamana is your woman if you ever need an actress who looks and sounds uncannily like Parker Posey. But if you need an actress who looks and sounds like a high school student, you should probably keep looking.)

If anything, the production feels under-directed -- the actors seem to have been left to make their own choices, and very few of them are good choices. Meanwhile, every staging-related decision does a disservice to the play. Stairs might be quietly powerful, maybe even devastating, if staged briskly on a naturalistic set with great actors. But this production drags, its funereal pace apparently dictated by the overwhelming dreariness of the play's events. And the most credulity-straining plot elements (like Sammy's instant bond with Sonny, or Lottie's sudden decision to pour out her heart to Cora) have no hope of playing out in a natural or believable way on the bare-yet-fussy set, which has many scrims but almost no furniture, and therefore nothing to occupy the characters (and no place for them to sit down) during their long, angsty dialogues. Remember the scene in that seminal Fawlty Towers episode, "The Germans," where Basil loses his patience with the hotel guests because they insist on waiting in the lobby for him to begin the fire drill? I felt like Basil for much of this play, sniping mentally, "Right, because obviously if there were a family crisis to discuss, you'd all be standing around like this in the foyer." And, as if it weren't long enough, the play ends with an audio review of its key dramatic moments. The sound design isn't good, and even if it were, the gimmick would be a bad idea, because if the lines had the proper impact the first time around, I wouldn't need to hear them again. And since they didn't have much impact in context, there's no point in prolonging the evening by revisiting them at the end. Believe me, the evening is long enough already -- and that's not Inge's fault.

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