nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 26, 2005
There's no doubt in my mind that Christopher Durang's heart is in the right place: he intends Miss Witherspoon, I think, to be a comic-but-serious meditation on the sorry state of the world and the sad but pervasive disconnectedness of so-called sophisticates that has helped bring us to said sorry state. Veronica, the protagonist of this new play, is just such an urban creature of privilege: we meet her, at table at a sidewalk cafe or coffee shop, talking at (but not listening to or communicating with) some unseen person on her cell phone; basking in her wary entitlement to not be involved with anything going on around her.
Then Chicken Little appears shouting that the sky is falling, and then Veronica remembers how distressed she was when Skylab (back in the '70s) was put into orbit without anybody in authority seeming to care that it might very well fall down on the Earth. And then Veronica discovers that she is dead; or we discover it—at any rate, she's in the afterlife now, and she's confiding to us that she killed herself because she couldn't bear to live anymore, and that she's glad she wasn't around for 9/11 because that really would have torn her apart. All she wants now is peace. Oblivion, really: not to be bothered. By anyone. Ever again.
Alas, Veronica is not to have her way. The afterlife she's living in turns out to be Bardo (not exactly the one described here, but close), and, guided by a cheerful Indian woman named Maryamma who calls her "Miss Witherspoon" for reasons never entirely made clear, she's about to be reincarnated—more than once—until her aura clears up and until she learns enough to achieve enlightenment or nirvana. The bulk of the play follows Veronica through several reincarnations (one of which is "lived" twice, though whether both versions are "real" is also not clear).
For the first two-thirds of the play, Durang has his heroine actively resist the karmic lessons she's supposed to be learning. Then, in the final third, he makes a sharp turn and brings on both Jesus Christ (in the guise of a black woman in pearls and an ostentatious hat) and Gandolf (or Gandalf; I'm not sure of the spelling), who is NOT the character in Lord of the Rings but some pagan entity, who urge Veronica to go back to Earth one more time and try to effect significant social change before the planet self-destructs.
As I said, Durang's impulses here feel humane and beautiful. I just wish he'd written a play that's less muddled and more potently convincing. It's easy to nod empathetically when a character purporting to be Christ worries that her teachings aren't being followed nowadays, but it would be better if the play had actually seemed to be about that problem during the preceding hour. But it doesn't seem to be about that at all: for most of its running time, Miss Witherspoon seems to be a game, in which Veronica—who inexplicably remains Veronica even though she keeps getting reincarnated as different humans (and, according to Maryamma, is supposed to go through the Lake of Forgetfulness before she returns to Earth in each new incarnation)—engages in a battle of wills with representatives of various religions that she purports not to believe in. (Maybe I'm being too literal here, but I was confused by what I took to be a playwright hedging his bets, putting what appears to be a Hindu woman with Jesus inside a Buddhist construct.)
The play is fitfully funny, but the jokes feel scattershot; there's a running gag about Rex Harrison and My Fair Lady that I never really "got." Kristine Nielsen seems utterly at sea here, always indicating rather than inhabiting her character, gesturing and grimacing wildly, the way that Dame Edna does to stretch a laugh in her one-woman show. (I have seen Nielsen do fine work elsewhere: is this her decision, or has director Emily Mann asked for this?) In contrast, Mahira Kakkar is actually quite charming as Maryamma, who could be very annoying but somehow isn't. Lynda Gravatt provides warmth and gravity as a kindly teacher who befriends Veronica/Miss Witherspoon in one of her incarnations and also as the lady in the hat who is actually Jesus. Troupers Colleen Werthmann and Jeremy Shamos have much less to do that's interesting, portraying two different sets of parents and other miscellaneous personages who pop up in the various incarnations. The production values, as per usual with Playwrights Horizons, are superlative.
But ultimately, Miss Witherspoon, well-intended though it may be, is a bit of a mess; I kept wishing it would get its act together as I watched it, but it never did.