Thursday, May 11, 2006

Review: Well at the Longacre

It's always a little disheartening to see good plays close on Broadway well before their time has come. Such is the case with Well by Lisa Kron and starring her. Great reviews, but anemic ticket sales. I guess the situation's sort of analogous to independent films and blockbusters. If people are going to pay Broadway prices, they want to see a Broadway show. And Well, which had a great run at the Public Theater, located downtown on Lafayette Street, is more of an Off-Broadway play: less over-the-top in terms of production values, and more meta- than your typical juke-box, Disney, or star-studded fare. There's even a line in the play about the show's "downtown"-ness.

All that said, the play is really funny, and very touching, and if you'd thought about seeing it at all this spring, hurry out in the next three days, and see it before it closes on Sunday. Tickets in the three-tiered theater's balcony are $25, and there was no shortage of empty seats tonight.

At its most basic, the play is about the relationship between the daughter character Lisa Kron created for herself and that of Ann Kron, her mother, played with a disarming lack of self-consciousness by Jayne Houdyshell, who's the real star of the show, because she seems to do so much to avoid the spotlight. The show is also about the struggle to put life experiences into nice and easy boxes, and the tug of war that happens between life and art, and mother and daughter, when each party is always interrupting the other to try and tell the story better. Houdyshell—in her utter embodiement of a mother who's done good and satisfying work in her life, but has also been hobbled by sickness ("allergies") and now sits on a big recliner most days, watching tapes of ice skating ("I watch a little, and then I doze, and then I rewind it and watch it again")—plays that mom whom all the neighborhood kids love, who manages to steal the stage from her daughter without even trying. Kron plays the daughter who demands control in her life and her art, now that's she's "well" and far removed from the Lansing, Michigan, of her youth where her mother still holds court in her own small way.

You can see from early on how the character Lisa plays is destined to fail at keeping control over the "multi-character theatrical exploration" or keeping her mother in her armchair and out of the mix. The clash of theatrical constructs and parlor-room storytelling is dramatized most hilariously when the stage goes black and Lisa steps into a square spotlight to explain to the audience that she refuses to confront her mother in a real conversation here and now, using that time-honored device of freezing dramatic time and opening the fourth wall. But the mother character gets fed up with things, and calls out from her darkened recliner to stop the silliness and deal with the real crux of the matter. The stroke had the audience in stitches.

It was such a powerful moment because it managed to make me love the ideals of theater and life all the more, even as it brought them into stark comic relief. It was also a moment that made me feel sympathy for the character, who so dearly wants to live a creative and original life and so often trips up hilariously along the way, but also admiration for the playwright, for putting herself in an eloquently crafted position on stage that lays bare her own failings and struggles. She is living up to that great maxim of writing: Say the hardest thing.

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