A Mixed Bag of Plays Appearing On Broadway
Three current theater productions address women's advancement, the evils of war and pollution, and a mother's managing of her teenage daughter's affair
NEW YORK — A ROOM OF ONE'S OWN Adapted by Patrick Garland from the book by Virginia Woolf. Directed by Mr. Garland. Starring Eileen Atkins. At the Lamb's Theatre.
A ROOM of One's Own" distinguishes the season with a work of irony, intellectual passion, and depth of human feeling. Working from the book by Virginia Woolf, adapter-director Patrick Garland has distilled into an evening's entertainment Woolf's reflections and convictions about the role of women in literature and society. Yet far from being a case of feminist pleading, the one-woman show at the Lamb's Theatre is notable for its reasonableness, good sense, and lack of aggression.
Depth of feeling is there all the same and all the more evident in Eileen Atkins's enactment of Woolf - a combination of precise portraiture and persuasive eloquence. With introductory voice-over assists, the British star approaches the stage from the back of the auditorium. Entrusting hat and overcoat to the clothes rack thoughtfully provided by set designer Bruce Goodrich, Miss Atkins immediately sets to work as visiting lecturer. For the next 100 minutes or so (with one intermission), she embodies th e fastidiously articulated thoughts of her protagonist.
She opens her case in straightforward terms. For a woman to write, she must have an income of 500 pounds a year and a room of her own. The obstacles to achieving this not very remarkable state of independence lead "A Room of One's Own" down innumerable paths and bypaths. The first is quite literal. Woolf reports that as she strayed onto a university lawn, she was waved off by an imperious beadle. He serves as the first symbolic figure of many men who have kept women off turf reserved for males only.
Here are some typical examples of Woolf wisdom: "Why does Samuel Butler say, 'Wise men never say what they mean about women'? Wise men never say anything else apparently.... Possibly when the professor insisted a little too emphatically upon the inferiority of women, he was concerned not with their inferiority but with his own superiority....
"The news of my legacy reached me one night about the same time that the act was passed that gave votes to women.... Of the two - the vote and the money - the money, I own, seemed infinitely more important.... Indeed, if woman had no existence save in the fiction written by men, one would imagine her a person of the utmost importance.... In fact, as professor Trevelyan points out, she was locked up, beaten, and flung about the room.... The history of men's opposition to women's emancipation is more inte resting perhaps than the history of emancipation itself...."
All of this and so much more is delivered by Atkins with the conviction - and eloquence - it merits. The actress doesn't attempt a literal transformation into the Woolf image, preferring rather, with her casual suit and loosely knotted tie, to achieve a period Bloomsbury look which admirably serves the purposes of the portrayal. "A Room of One's Own" achieves the Shavian ideal of the theater to educate as well as entertain. It is ideally suited to the intimate hospitality of the Lamb's Theatre. The prod uction was lighted by Lloyd Sobel.
THE SPEED OF DARKNESS Play by Steve Tesich. Directed by Robert Falls. Starring Len Cariou, Stephen Lang. At the Belasco Theatre.
THE Speed of Darkness" is a dramatic hybrid - part mystery, part tragedy, part angry indictment of society's complicity in the evils of pollution and war. Steve Tesich's symbolic new play starts out as a plain-folks South Dakota couple awaits the post-midnight return of their teenage daughter Mary from a date. Even this scene hints at the turbulence in store.
In the course of Act 1, Joe (Len Cariou), a successful construction man, seeks to reassure nervous young Mary (Kathryn Erbe) as she worries about the big change in her life that will follow high school graduation. But Joe has troubles of his own, momentarily centered on his choice as one of four candidates to be South Dakota's "man of the year." He dismisses wife Anne's (Lisa Eichhorn) tactful critique of his speech as brusquely as he has responded to his fellow citizens' attempt to honor him. Joe has a lso positioned himself against local opinion by opposing a real estate development atop a neighboring mesa. No one can understand his resistance to the project.
No one, that is, except Mr. Tesich. The playwright gradually probes a series of troubling events stretching all the way back to Joe's service in Vietnam and beyond. The wounds from which he still suffers are reopened with the arrival of wartime buddy Lou (Stephen Lang), whose life Joe saved in combat. In his own good time, the author sheds devastating light on the dark secret they share.
Revelations come gradually. Nor do they end with the fatal act that produces the evening's most stunning climax. A final disclosure - in this case concerning Joe's and Anne's relationship and the parenthood of Mary - fills in the pieces of the jigsaw plot.
The performance staged by Robert Falls exploits the tensions inherent in the script. Mr. Cariou's Joe is an abrasive bundle of contradictions - unpredictably temperamental in his behavior toward the wife and daughter he cherishes, suffering with mingled self-doubt and self-confidence. It is a powerhouse performance in a powerful work. He is well matched by Mr. Lang as the appealing veteran whose homelessness adds to the drama's social dimensions. As Joe's womenfolk, Miss Eichhorn and Miss Erbe height en the play's emotional appeal - Eichhorn as the cherishing Anne and Erbe as the apprehensively sensitive Mary. Robert Sean Leonard gives a tactful but discerning performance as Mary's boyfriend. "The Speed of Darkness" is fraught with symbols, from the make-believe "baby" that Mary carries with her to the dim outlines of the mesa in the background of Thomas Lynch's set (murkily lighted by Michael S. Philippi). Merrily Murray-Walsh designed the costumes.
"The Speed of Darkness" is the first venture by the recently formed Broadway Alliance, an association dedicated to encouraging the production of straight plays at some of Broadway's well-appointed but lesser-used playhouses. The experiment has been made possible by concessions on the part of both the creative and business departments. Under the plan, no production can be budgeted for more than $400,000 and the top ticket price for all performances is $24.
THE BIG LOVE Comedy by Brooke Allen and Jay Presson Allen, based on the book by Florence Aadland and Tedd Thomey. Directed by Mrs. Allen. Starring Tracey Ullman. At the Plymouth Theatre.
WITH Robert Morse nearing the end of a prolonged engagement in "Tru," Jay Presson Allen's evocation of Truman Capote, Mrs. Allen has been helping ready yet another piece of solo stage biography.
The new reminiscence, written in collaboration with daughter Brooke, concerns Florence Aadland, the mother of Errol Flynn's teenage inamorata. Entitled "The Big Love," it takes place in Los Angeles in 1961 and stars Britain's versatile, award-winning Tracey Ullman.
What you see is pretty much what you get at the Plymouth Theatre: a chatty pop piece in the vein of fan magazines, gossip columns, tabloids, and TV talk shows (but with no expletives deleted).
Sporting an American accent as authentic as her blowsy persona, Miss Ullman's Florence reflects on an affair that began with Flynn's rape of the 15-year-old Beverly and continued as a sort of three-way relationship which Florence more or less stage-managed and chaperoned.
She insists that only the star's death prevented him from marrying her daughter.
The nearest Flo comes to apologizing for her delinquency (for which she was briefly jailed) is to rationalize what happened on her own amoral terms. The rationale includes references to "a Rosicrucian lady" who assured the compliant divorcee that "everything is ordained."
The writing and Allen's direction are comically savvy, sharply observant of the tawdry side of the tinsel town she knows so well.
The play's only tension and bid for audience sympathy spring from Flo's immediate circumstance. Packing as she prepares to leave her bungalow and serve her jail sentence, she awaits a phone call from Beverly, now on tour and chaperoned by an unidentified Christian group.
Mood and milieu are vividly served in a production designed by David Mitchell (replete with a pictorial map of "Homes of the Stars" and assorted photographic blowups), Ken Billington (lighting), and Jane Greenwood (costumes).