'Close of Play': an in-depth family portrait -- 'Heartland': stock schlock

'Close of Play' Comedy by Simon Gray. Directed by Lynne Meadow. With "Close of Play," Britain's Simon Gray adds another stage portrait to his gallery of odd men out. Prof. Jasper Spencer is neither abrasive, like Butley, nor aloof, like Simon Hench of "Otherwise Engaged." Spencer is literally beyond recall. He is, in fact, a ghost -- though it was not until I read a published interview with the author that I realized the extent of the professor's mortality. The mysterious presence that puzzled British playgoers has not been entirely explained for Americans. At least one member of a Manhattan Theater Club preview audience thought that Spencer was god. He is beyond doubt an impressively silent gray eminence.

"Close of Play" is a rueful, monetarily exultant comedy in which past haunts present and the living haunt the dead. It is about marriage and parenthood, life and mortality. It is also about unwitting alienation. The title comes from a cricketing phrase to indicate the state of a match that has finished for the day but will continue on the morrow.

The action occurs between lunch and tea time. The relatives assembled for a family reunion in designer John Lee Beatty's hospitably beamed and paneled English living room belong to the professional-academic class. They include Spencer's two surviving sons, their wives, the widow of his eldest, and a resident cousin who also runs the household.

By teatime, a number of family skeletons have been dragged out of previously guarded closets. Spencer and the audience have witnessed the drunken youngest son's exhibitions of mawkish inferiority and heard his older brother's faltering admission of marital infidelity. As the adult children deliver their self-propelled monologues to Daddy, the impression grows that Spencer was one of those detached savants whose scholarly pursuits, with resultant honors, preoccupied him beyond all other interests.

Whatever his behavior in life, Professor Spencer now sits mute and immobile, an isolated figure of calm amid the choppy conversational cross-currents, the solid but spectral spectator at the reunion rite. In this exacting central role , William Roerick demonstrates with silent eloquence what is meant by the art of listening. His subtle changes of facial expression -- sidelong glances, faint smiles, knitted brows --extend from shock and dismay to resignation. In one sense the author's chief collaborator, he does everything in his power to make an arbitrary device seem plausible.

Working from Mr. Gray's acutely observant sketches, the cast directed by Lynne Meadow creates an in-depth family portrait. Pauline Flanagan chides and chatters endlessly as the cousin who has become a domestic fixture in the widower's home. The returnees include John Christopher Jones as the disintegrating youngest son and John Horton as his outwardly nonchalant brother. On the distaff side, the performance level is admirably sustained by Veronica Castang as a pregnant, maternally preoccupied noodlehead; Caroline Lagerfelt as a newly published novelist determined to escape an intolerable marriage; and Lynn Milgrim as the dowdy widow of the cherished Spencer firstborn, a less than admirable sibling whose death in a motorcycle crash may have been suicide.

Dennis Parichy's lighting features some mood-setting ghostly greenery and a brilliant flood of illumination to accompany Jasper Spencer's liberating moment of exultation. Jennifer Von Mayrhauser designed the costumes.

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