Friday, 23 May 2014

Linda Lavin in Nicky Silver's TOO MUCH SUN at the Vineyard Theatre

     I'm a big fan of Nicky Silver's work and also a big fan of Linda Lavin who I first saw on Broadway half a century ago in IT'S A BIRD, IT'S A PLANE, IT'S SUPERMAN. TOO MUCH SUN is another Lavin-Siver collaboration after their successful THE LYONS a couple of years ago. Silver loves writing about monster mothers and in THE LYONS Lavin played an uber-monster, waiting not so patiently for her husband to die. TOO MUCH SUN is a kinder, gentler play than Silver usually writes, a bit soft of focus, but rich and touching. There are few belly laughs here, which will disappoint some, but there is beauty of language and a varied emotional palette.
     Yes, we watch a dysfunctional family (two dysfunctional families, actually), and yes Lavin plays a self-absorbed mother, but TOO MUCH SUN is about a group of people at crucial junctures in their lives who don't see much meaning in their existence. The play begins at a rehearsal for the ultimate monster mother play, MEDEA. Veteran actress Audrey Langham (Lavin), is having trouble remembering her lines. As a matter of fact, nothing about the production seems right to her, from her costume to the staging to the lighting to the play itself. Audrey is having an existential crisis -- suddenly the whole idea of acting, "playing imaginary people in imaginary rooms," ceases to make sense. She walks off stage, leaves town and heads out to the summer home of her daughter Kitty (Jennifer Westfeldt), a schoolteacher who has lost her calling, and Kitty's husband Dennis (Ken Barnett), an advertising executive who would rather be writing a science fiction novel. Dennis also is torn between his conventional life and sex on the dunes with Lucas (Matt Dickson), the young man next door who has been supporting himself selling pot. Lucas plans to start college in the fall, though he doesn't really have any goals. Both Kitty and Lucas have been damaged by their parents. Kitty never met her father and resents the fact that Audrey has more or less neglected her -- Audrey even sent an understudy to Kitty's graduation! Lucas has never fully recovered from catching his father having sex with another woman and subsequently finding his mother's body after she committed suicide. Winston, his father  (Richard Bekins), doesn't know what to do with his son or with his own life. Into this mix comes Gil, Audrey's agent's assistant and nephew (Matt Dellapina). Gil hates being an agent and really wants to be a rabbi, though he isn't religious. What these characters share is a sense of lostness and of unhealed wounds. Their collisions are sometimes funny, sometimes bittersweet, and occasionally tragic. In his earlier work, one felt at times that Silver went for the easy laugh. There are no easy laughs here. Everything stems from character.
     TOO MUCH SUN is a rich domestic drama. There are echoes of A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE. Like Blanche, Audrey wants life to be like theatre and looks to a loveless marriage to save her. Love itself is a fraught word here. Without pressing the point, Silver ponders what the word means or whether love in any ideal form exists. If I have any reservation about the play it concerns the occasional breaking of the 4th wall. I'm not sure we need the characters' direct address to the audience and their final cataloguing of what happens to them after the action of the play is a tired convention.
     Of course, Lavin is superb in a part written for her. She even gets to sing, though she is now a baritone rather than the fantastic belter she was decades ago. She's funny -- no one has a better sense of comic timing -- but she doesn't rely on her stock takes. She's always in character. She has to show far more range here than she did in THE LYONS. Her serious moments are as powerful as her more comic ones.I have a feeling that director Mark Brokaw has told his actors to play down their characters' neuroses, to build to the climactic moment. In other words, don't make this a typical Nicky Silver play. He's right -- these characters are more adept at hiding their primal screams than many Silver characters. Almost everyone is convincing, funny and touching. I say almost, because there is one weak link. From the second row, handsome Matt Dickson looks a decade too old to play Lucas and works too hard to play young. Lucas is supposed to be considerably younger than Dennis, but from ten feet away they looked close to the same age. Dickson looks like a lifeguard, not the local dealer, and always seems to be "acting" I didn't believe his performance for one moment.
     TOO MUCH SUN is up there with the best plays I have seen this season and Lavin's performance is a must. Don't miss it.
TOO MUCH SUN. Vineyard Theatre. Mary 23, 2014.

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