Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Still Life


By Alexander Dinelaris. Directed by Will Frears. Lucille Lortel Theatre. (CLOSED)

Critics are drawn to the relationship at the center of Still Life, between photographer Carrie Ann (Sarah Paulson), who hasn't been able to take a photograph since her father's death, and Jeffrey (Frederick Weller), a trend analyst dealing with his own mortality. They write that both Paulson and Weller have a tendency to be cold, but for these characters that trait is an asset. Though critics praise Matthew Rauch's performance as Jeff's morally corrupt boss Terry, they find that the character ultimately fails to connect to the story as a whole. The bottom line in most of the reviews is that Dinelaris has written a promising play with believable dialogue, but he is attempting too much and it never fully comes together.

Bloomberg News A+
(Jeremy Gerard) Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie had it in “Mr. and Mrs. Smith.” Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy epitomized it. If you want to see chemistry in action -- the kind that’s equal parts sexual electricity and crackling banter -- get your tickets now for “Still Life.” You’ll find Sarah Paulson and Frederick Weller at the Lortel Theater in New York’s Greenwich Village throwing off hot sparks in the best new American play since “Proof.”

TheaterScene.net A
(Victor Gluck) Alexander Dinelaris’ Still Life is a seminal portrait of Generation X, both in its successes and its weaknesses. The play is witty and clever, bright and fresh, a romantic drama that has something to say and a strong message. This genre is rare today and an endangered species. Under director Will Frears’ taut and sensitive staging, the characters ring true and the play moves with the speed of contemporary cinema. In fact, the play will make an even better film with its many short scenes and quick, bristling exchanges.

The New Yorker A-
(Unsigned) The cast, headed by the superb Sarah Paulson and Frederick Weller, is uniformly expert; the play is well directed by Will Frears. As a writer, Dinelaris is almost too cool for school. He has no problem with presentation; the challenge is penetration. For that, his pithy dialogue would have to be couched in a format that amounted to more than movie scenes and movie problems, performed by movie actors.

Backstage A-
(Adam Perlman) In his sparkling dialogue and its underlying gravity, Dinelaris is like a sad-eyed Aaron Sorkin. (This is meant as a compliment.) He runs into trouble, though, in trying to incorporate a third viewpoint. In addition to Carrie Ann, the watcher, and Jeff, the conflicted participant, we get Terry (Matthew Rauch), the unrepentant doer. He's written and played like a refugee from a Mamet play. Amazingly, this isn't the problem, for Dinelaris nails the bilious, rapid-fire dialogue and Rauch the delivery. The issue is that the character runs out of steam then vaporizes. There's no satisfaction in his relationship to the other characters or the play's themes. Neither this nor the thin writing of two luxuriously cast supporting roles—Dominic Chianese as Carrie Ann's father, Adriane Lenox as a photography teacher—compromises the overall effectiveness of the portrait.

CurtainUp A-
(Elyse Sommer) The playwright is blessed to have Will Frears at the helm. With the play structured to have scenes alternate from one side of the stage to the other, Frears has guided his designers to create the feel of its multiple locations with a de-emphasis on fussy staging and an emphasis on fluidity. Thus a long table and just a few other scenic props serve to evoke a university lecture hall, a conference room, an art gallery, Carrie Ann's apartment, several bar scenes and a dinner. Most importantly, he has elicited believable, powerful performances from the actors. Paulson and Weller are completely convincing as the besotted lovers —funny and sad, but never clawing. Rauch is chillingly smarmy as Terry. Dominic Chianese, best known as "Uncle Junior" in The Sopranos makes the most of two brief dream sequences as Theo, Carrie Ann's father... There's lots of fine, meaningful dialogue here, sometimes too much--as illustrated by the lengthy argument about gender identities during the dinner scene with Carrie Ann, Jeffrey and their hosts Mary and Sean as somewhat too long and extraneous. There are a few other scenes that seem a bit forced but overall this is an absorbing and moving look at living fully no matter what our lucky or unlucky breaks.

Talkin' Broadway B+
(Matthew Murray) Dinelaris metes out the microscopic victories so smartly that each new advance, up until the one that defines the ultimate boundaries of their growing feelings, plays as a cathartic triumph. Both Weller (best known for playing the violent redneck in Take Me Out) and Paulson (Laura in David Leveaux’s misbegotten 2005 revival of The Glass Menagerie) can seem cold and detached onstage, but here that potential liability is a huge asset. In their scenes together, the two form an emotional echo chamber that traps and amplifies what little heat there is, until all iciness has been melted away. Weller floods Jeff’s monumental second-act decisions about control and survival with the pain of losing something precious far too quickly; Paulson alternately blossoms and withers as Jeff’s light finds ever-new ways to touch her. They’re two luminous performances... In conflating issues of emotional and artistic liberty, Dinelaris pulls too many strings to too little effect, at least when Carrie Ann and Jeff aren’t at the center of the frame. In fairness, director Will Frears has not shepherded a supple production: He hasn’t figured out how to make the snapshot-like scenes not feel sluggish, a confusing scenic concept (by David Korins) makes use of too much marble for these workaday people, and generally dim lighting (by David Weiner) contributes to an unnecessarily dreary atmosphere that can’t abate entirely once the characters learn how to escape it. But throughout there’s the inescapable sense that Dinelaris is just trying to say too much.

TheaterMania B
(Andy Propst) Despite Dinelaris' shrewd characterizations and the cast's carefully considered performances, stretches of Still Life seem forced and hollow. The back story and ramifications of Joanne's relationship with Carrie Ann and her father never ring true. Similarly, Terry's brazen come-ons to women seem like pale imitations of macho behavior for the 1990s rather than the behavior of a desensitized man in the early 21st Century. Yet despite its flaws, the play remains interesting, thanks to its sometimes sharp insights and frequently crackling dialogue. It's a series of theatrical snapshots that simply need to be more cohesively ordered.

The Village Voice C+
(Eric Grode) Dinelaris is on a mission to rescue his peers from the (long ago discarded) stereotype of terminally ironic apathy. But by focusing so much on refuting Reality Bites, he and director Will Frears frequently lose track of the vibrant, unpredictable, alluring couple at the center of their play. Sarah Paulson and Frederick Weller generate delightfully cantankerous fireworks as Carrie Ann and Jeffrey; several of Dinelaris's windier explications of Dignity and Purpose are trumped by Jeffrey's furtive sniff of the jacket he had draped over Carrie Ann's shoulders after walking her home. But manifesto-itis constantly threatens to eclipse the play's incidental pleasures. And a late plot twist shines an unfortunate spotlight on Dinelaris's distractingly earnest view of Gen-Xers.

Variety C+
(Marilyn Stasio) Having created his ideal couple for this age of existential anxiety and paralysis, Dinelaris doesn't quite know what to do with them, other than show them together and separately interacting (or not interacting) with their equally disaffected peers. While this results in some idle amusement -- especially in scenes between laid-back Jeff and his hyper-crude boss, Terry (all aggressive energy in Matthew Rauch's wired perf) -- none of this brittle chat advances the plot. Mainly because there isn't any plot until Jeff falls ill and takes the story down its expected path. Dinelaris writes decent dialogue that occasionally puts some real oomph into a scene, as when Theo makes peace with his limitations ("It's cruel to realize your mediocrity at the end of your life") and embraces his daughter's artistic superiority. Or when Carrie Ann's self-effacing assistant, Jessie (in a sweet and savvy perf from Halley Feiffer), erupts into an amusing aria of self-debasement. But like the inert generation it presumes to represent, all that sound and fury about death and dying signifies nothing about life.

The New York Times C+
(Ben Brantley) Mr. Dinelaris spins an appealing line of silky, fraying banter. And his play is at its most affecting when it portrays courtships conducted in the shadow of mortality. On the one hand, there’s the endearing, self-sabotaging chemistry that infuses the dance of mutual attraction performed by Carrie Ann and Jeffrey. (It’s a one-step-forward, three-steps-back pas de deux.) On the other, there’s the brutal, carnally direct approach that Terry (Matthew Rauch), Jeffrey’s macho boss and friend, tries on pretty much every woman who crosses his line of vision. Both forms of pitching woo are equally self-conscious and self-protecting, and all the more affecting for being so. It’s when the show tackles its big subjects more directly that it gets into trouble. In its first act “Still Life” is rather like its characters, camouflaging and betraying its essential seriousness with flippancy, and that tension holds your interest. In the second act, when the veils are pulled off of real life, real death and the psychological motives behind Carrie Ann’s photographer’s block, the play’s tone increasingly suggests an old inspirational weepie.

Lighting & Sound America C-
(David Barbour) David Korins is very possibly the most interesting set designer working Off Broadway today, but Still Life does not feature one of his happiest inventions. It's a fairly generic collection of elements -- a couple of pillars, some ceiling moldings, a window unit, and a long table -- that tries to stand in for so many locations it ends up suiting very few of them. It also doesn't solve the structural problems of a script constructed out of many short scenes; much of the second act is taken up with people moving furniture around in the dark. However, the action is lit with rare fluency and skill by David Weiner. His nighttime sidelight looks are particularly alluring, as is a wash of African sunlight, and there's a shocking moment, late in the play, when harsh morning light is made to pour into a room. Barring an extremely unfortunate cocktail dress for Paulson, Sarah J. Holden's costumes seem accurate and up to date. Fitz Patton's sound design includes some ambient urban noises, as well as reinforcement for the melancholy guitar music penned by Michael Friedman. As it shifts it focus among its leading characters, and shuttles between cynicism and sentimentality, Still Life offers a blurry image of its characters. There's a play in there, but it need a surer hand for its power to be fully brought to life.

Bloomberg News A+ 14; TheaterScene.net A 13; The New Yorker A- 12; Backstage A- 12; CurtainUp A- 12; Talkin' Broadway B+ 11; TheaterMania B 10; The Village Voice C+ 8; Variety C+ 8; The New York Times C+ 8; Lighting & Sound America C- 6; TOTAL: 114/11 = 10.36 (B)

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