A Spanish Play
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 31, 2007
Don't give the impression that there's a beginning and an end, enter the Prelude as if you were formulating out loud—and because it's impossible for you to silence—what's already there, don't know where you're going, don't go anywhere that exists, nothing goes to the very end...
There's some beautiful and profound writing in A Spanish Play, a new work by French playwright Yasmina Reza (translated by David Ives) that's currently being presented at Classic Stage Company. The above excerpt is from a speech delivered by a character in a play within the play, a Bulgarian piano teacher who is urging a student with no talent whom she nevertheless loves to find the truth in the piece he's learning. This piano teacher is played, in turn, by an actress named Aurelia who perhaps also has no talent (her sister, also an actress, is a successful movie star; but Aurelia is principally a housewife, married unhappily to an alcoholic math teacher). But, as portrayed by Linda Emond, Aurelia is definitely questing for some truth.
This is an oblique, many-layered script; A Spanish Play takes place during the rehearsal of a Spanish play about Aurelia, her husband Mariano, her sister Nuria, and her mother, Pilar, who has just begun a relationship with a well-to-do widower named Fernan. Aurelia is rehearsing for her piano teacher role in a Bulgarian play. Nuria is trying to decide what dress she will wear to the Goyas (the Spanish version of the Oscars). And, throughout the rehearsal(s)—I've added that parenthetical "s" because it's not clear whether we're watching more than one—we hear the thoughts of the actors playing Aurelia, Nuria, et al, reflecting on fame, beauty, and acting in both its most ethereal and mundane aspects.
Reza's idea, I think, in this onion/maze of a play, is to reveal the ways that "acting" and acting meld, to illuminate the powerful idea of simply being. "Play without creating any events other than the music," Aurelia's Bulgarian piano teacher tells her student, and that's the heart of the matter: Reza deliberately and constantly obscures our perspective, blurring the lines between the play we're experiencing live in the theatre and the play inside that play, and the play inside that one, and the play inside that one (not to mention the little "plays" that all of the characters, at whatever level we choose, are creating about themselves, in their own heads).
At least, Reza tries for such a blurring; but she's defeated at every turn by a director who seems determined to eliminate any subtlety from a work that's built up almost exclusively from subtleties. John Turturro, better known as an actor, makes sure we know when the actor is being him/herself (as opposed to the character he or she is playing) by resorting to a variety of tricks, ranging from shifts in the lighting to placing the actor in the audience to (most egregiously) having them videotaped, live, by a roving cameraman; there's even a scene where we watch footage of one of the actors (Denis O'Hare) while he's soliloquizing on the toilet. This stuff, acknowledging the meta-ness in a play that wants it to be subliminal, hurts the piece immeasurably.
Turturro has also blocked the show quite poorly, placing the actors at the corners of the playing space so that audience members (who sit on three sides of the stage at CSC) almost always have someone's back to them, blocking their view of someone else. He has encouraged, or at least allowed, his two male actors (O'Hare and Larry Pine) to overact shamelessly. Meanwhile, the stellar presence on stage—legendary actress Zoe Caldwell, as Pilar—has the very least to do; I watched several people in the front rows leaning forward every time Caldwell came on stage, and watched them withdraw into their seatbacks as it became clear, as the play wore on, that her performance here is in no way the star turn we were expecting.
Emond, as it turns out, is the star (if there is one): she plays Aurelia with great intelligence and wistfulness. Katherine Borowitz, as Nuria, is nearly as good, though the character herself acknowledges that she's the supporting player in this story. Emond and Borowitz have superb chemistry together, and a scene in which the two sisters gossip and confide in one another is hands-down the most effective in the show.
Fans of Caldwell and Reza should take heed, though, that neither of those ladies are particularly well-served by this production. Caldwell deserves a role that allows us to witness more of her talent than just her extraordinary vivid speaking voice. And Reza deserves a director who won't interpret away her intent with foolish and sloppy gimmickry.