I finally returned to the theatergoing life this weekend by taking in a play on Saturday and another show on Sunday afternoon, both of which were “two-handers”, only starring two actors, just talking with each other, for an hour and a half or so. Clearly time well spent!
Saturday afternoon took me to the somewhat far afield but well regarded Willamston Theatre for their production of Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, a play that seems to be well known in the theatre canon but I had never seen performed. It was also made into a 1991 film that I recall seeing in video stores for some years afterward, though also have never seen.
This production took on a realistic look at two co-workers (I want to say “lost souls” but that seems a little too harsh) getting to know each other more intimately on a Saturday night in the New York City of 1987. We see them move through the motions of a first date, starting at the peak and going back down… and up again… and through their differing stages and perspectives of intimacy and acceptance.
As the couple, John Lepard and Suzi Regan are clearly acting pros, showcasing an easy, yet caustic rapport with each other and mostly believable roller coaster of emotions in reaction to one another. They were helped by an extremely detailed set, squeezed in to a narrow thrust/theatre-in-the-round type space, with a working refrigerator, stove top, sink and adjacent bathroom all helping to add realism to the story. Not to forget the wide range of costumes visible in a closet and artfully strewn about the floor.
While the script has dated slightly, giving the impression of a grimier and more violent NYC than exists today, along with some now-anachronisms like calling a radio station to ask for the title of a song, I felt that didn’t distract from the impact of the performance. I also felt like the actors effectively conveyed a sense of not overly dramatic, but urgent desperation in each other’s role — they want to connect with the other partner, but they might not know just how to do that.
This afternoon I walked steps from my front door to catch Performance Network‘s closing performance of Venus in Fur, a play that holds the honor of being the most-produced title at US theaters this season.
While this version didn’t feel quite as lively as it could be at times, in my opinion, it clearly showed the spark of David Ives’ writing and why the play has become so popular. Stressed out writer Thomas Novachek has completed a round of unsuccessful auditions for the new play that he’s also directing, based on a 19th century novel. As he’s getting ready to leave, in walks Vanda, who holds the same name as the play’s protagonist and quickly establishes a game of verbal cat and mouse with Thomas as she reveals more than she initially lets on.
The constant shift in balance of power – and characters not being what they seem – reminded me of a 2011 film, Certified Copy, which I promptly checked out from the Ann Arbor library and hope to revisit this week.
Actors Sebastian Gerstner and Maggie Meyer showed a deft command of the piece as they navigated the twists and turns of the plot. Meyer, in particular, seemed to be having fun with the demands of her role, requiring her to vamp it up to Noo Yawk levels at times, while building up the English/European character at other moments… and parade around in a sexy costume at the same time. I felt that Daniel C. Walker’s lighting design was another star of the show, emphasizing shadows at many instances, which added complexity to the pauses and banter of the two characters.
But I did feel like the production could have been livelier or snappier at times. I can’t put my finger on exactly what needed to be quickened, and it could be a reaction to seeing David Ives name as the writer, where he is best known for snappy comedies. I wouldn’t count this as a major fault, though, and it was clear that the simplicity of the piece – just two actors, etc – and relative modernity (a simple tale becomes more than it seems) have contributed greatly to the show’s appeal across the world.