By Lynn Redgrave. Directed by Joseph Hardy. Manhattan Theatre Club's Center Stage I. (CLOSED)
The latest of Lynn Redgrave's solo shows about her illustrious family seems simultaneously the most urgent and the most thinly sourced, and the generally admiring but not ecstatic reviews tend to harp on that disconnect. Some critics are enchanted by the story she's imagined for the maternal grandmother she barely knew, and feel the resonances between the unhappy marriages and social constraints of an earlier era and the personal setbacks that drove Redgrave to excavate her family's past; others strongly prefer the latter material but find Redgrave's fictions about "life back then" verging on cliche. Almost every critic notes the performer's riveting presence despite a health scare that has her seated at a desk with a script handy.
(Erik Haagensen) About as minimalist as you can get. She sits at a desk and tells us the story of her maternal grandmother, Beatrice "Beanie" Kempson, alternating her account with relevant reminiscences from her own life. It may not sound like much, but thanks to the tremendous specificity and detail of Redgrave's writing and acting, "Nightingale" is a haunting elegy and a moving act of love...Paradoxically, the acknowledgement of all this heartache, rather than coming across as an unhealthy dwelling on the past, proves healing. Understanding leads to forgiveness, even sympathy, and ultimately self-knowledge...As the child of English parents with a passel of U.K. relatives, I am perhaps predisposed to "Nightingale": Beanie reminds me in many ways of my late Auntie Dorothy. But as universality is rooted in specificity, I can't imagine anyone could be unmoved by Redgrave's compelling rendition of her and Beanie's story.
(David Finkle) Lynn Redgrave's...honesty -- about herself and her family -- shines like a beacon throughout Nightingale, her engaging solo piece...Using the unsatisfyingly few -- and often hardscrabble -- facts she has at her disposal, Redgrave has constructed a tale of a life made up primarily of melancholy, bittersweet, and dolorous episodes -- not the least of which is the honeymoon Beatrice and her groom, Eric Kempson, endured. Redgrave's depiction of the two virgins fumbling through these events -- and eventually settling into loveless cohabitation -- brings the portrait of an entire uninformed, painfully innocent generation to mind...It's said that all writing is therapy, and...between the lines of Nightingale, there's definitely the indication of a woman courageously grappling with her own problems...Several times in her confessional, Redgrave mentions that the endeavor enables her to hold her grandmother's hand. Her urgent and unflagging need to make that metaphorical link, even if it requires a searching imagination, is almost unbearably poignant.
Talkin' Broadway A
(Matthew Murray) What’s true on February 14 is generally true in the theatre, too: It’s the simple valentines that mean the most...Redgrave delivers a poignant but probing look at a catalytic force in her life. This one, however, is perhaps made even juicier by the fact that Redgrave barely knew Beatrice herself and came to most of her discoveries and conclusions later...Because of the great care with which Redgrave approaches all of these anecdotes, it rapidly ceases to matter which are based in fact and which supposition - they're all moving and convincing nonetheless...Despite the lack of trappings, you never feel you’re seeing any sort of a lesser venture - only one woman at the top of her form, embodying a gloriously fictional real-life woman - or is that a gloriously realistic fictional woman? That it’s hard to tell for sure is one of the play’s most telling joys.
The New Yorker A
The variety of English accents alone that Redgrave employs during this slightly overlong one-woman show would be enough to impress and delight, but it’s the seamless way she morphs from being her grandmother, stunned by bitterness, to herself, amused by her own good fortune and chastened by the looming spectre of death, that makes this show unusual and worthwhile.
(Marilyn Stasio) A desk, a chair, an open script, an actress with a story to tell and a passion to be heard -- that's all it takes for Lynn Redgrave to hold us in the palm of her hand for another of her searching one-woman plays about her famous family...Written with a sense of urgency, "Nightingale" is an attempt to connect with the maternal grandmother she barely knew: "that chilly ghost whose hands were always cold"...Bathed in the honey-gold tones of Rui Rita's lighting, Redgrave's unselfish performance is the essence of -- if not love, then generosity of the warmest, richest kind...Once past its awkward opening, "Nightingale" settles into itself as an attempt to understand and feel affection for a difficult and distant woman.
New York A-
(Scott Brown) She never rises from her seat for the play’s 85 minutes, yet the performance she delivers—with emphasis, passion, and precision—is a quick and vital thing. Eyes glint with sentiment and mischief, Redgrave kindles a small, bright fire in herself, and gathers us to her. It’s therapy, sure—a bit overwritten in some places, a tad underdone in others—but it never comes off sticky or indulgent. Doctor’s orders or no, that desk is there for a reason...By eclipsing herself with Beanie, Redgrave gives us more than mere confessional. She insists on making art. It is, after all, a bit more durable, and sometimes the best way to make your point is to keep your distance.
Bloomberg News A-
(John Simon) A triple triumph: For the woman, battling cancer for four years; for the actress, at her peak after four decades; and for the Redgrave clan, which hereby surpasses the mighty Barrymores as the royal family of stage and screen...Even were Redgrave confined up to her neck in a mound like Beckett’s Winnie toward the end of “Happy Days,” she could still reach, hold and move an audience to laughter and tears, and to exultation in the talent of an indomitable performer...“Nightingale” isn’t flawless. Redgrave packs too much into a 70-minute event as she gallantly hurdles barriers between decades. Insatiable, I would have welcomed even more saltation, especially about her beautiful and gifted mother, Rachel Kempson...Even so, despite good direction from Joseph Hardy and helpful lighting changes from Rui Rita, there were times when I found it hard to tell what decade it was.
New York Observer A-
(Jesse Oxfeld) It can feel sometimes like a bit of a bait-and-switch—you’d love to hear more about Ms. Redgrave’s life amid the detail about her grandmother’s—but it’s always compelling. Onstage, behind the desk, Ms. Redgrave looks healthy and vigorous, with a shock of spiky silver-brown hair, red lips and gleaming blue eyes. It’s almost an acting exercise: Alone onstage, no scene partners or props, without moving from a chair, now: act. Ms. Redgrave does, and it’s riveting.
Bergen Record B+
(Robert Feldberg) A very modest, odd theater piece. Yet, you’ll find yourself paying rapt attention. It’s all in the acting. Lynn Redgrave...gives an old-fashioned bravura performance. She’s not afraid to be bold, presenting her story with forthright British elegance, right down to the rolling R’s. If you want subtlety and understatement, stay home and watch Glenn Beck...If Redgrave means to show that her grandmother’s life was curdled by the middle-class conventions of her time and class, it’s hard to discern what she might have yearned for (except that farmer). Beatrice Kempson comes across as pinched, chilly, unimaginative and not very likeable. Still, Redgrave, as writer and actress, brings the woman to life...This is, in every sense, a commanding performance.
(Linda Winer) It's a special pleasure - not to mention a bit of a relief - to report that "Nightingale" broadens beyond the particulars into an imaginative, compelling, cannily constructed 85 minutes about far more than we think we already know. As Redgrave tells us, in her friendly and disarmingly uninhibited way, she had been catapulted, through loss, to imagine a life for her maternal grandmother, Beatrice, a chilly woman she mostly remembers for her cold hands. The actress-author toggles between her personal memories and a fiction that might explain this family mystery, a person whose name was washed from her headstone by acid rain...I wish director Joseph Hardy had resisted tinkling bells whenever Beatrice recalls sleigh rides, and Redgrave's tales of her own marriage teeter uncomfortably close to revenge. Both women, however, become good company in the tick-tock tragicomedy of life.
Village Voice B+
(Michael Feingold) Lynn Redgrave, a dauntless soul and a commanding actress, works through another segment of her pain-ridden family background in her solo show Nightingale, finding and communicating the love, as well as the pathos, in the story of her maternal grandmother, affection-starved as a child and starchily Victorian as a parent, whom it must have been awfully hard to like. The show's sad-sweet effect is small-scale but cherishable, like a gift of an antique carved-ivory cameo.
The Daily News B
(Joe Dziemianowicz) Lynn Redgrave shakes her famous family tree again for a new solo play. Presented by Manhattan Theatre Club, "Nightingale" is a moving fantasia inspired by her maternal grandmother, Beatrice Kempson...Believing that "no one dies who is remembered," Redgrave reverses the impact of time and erosion and memorializes her grandmother. She relies on bits of history and ample doses of imagination to parallel her life experiences with those of her mother’s mother. The scenes that are founded in truth land solidly. The play loses its way when it’s clear that Redgrave has fabricated events. That includes an unconsummated flirtation between Kempson and a lower-class farmer that haunts the woman until her death and gives the show its title. It sends the story into mushy romance-novel territory — think, "The Bridges of Devonshire County." But Redgrave is such an elegant and evocative actress that she makes up for flaws in the writing.
The New York Times B
(Charles Isherwood) Any expectations that this will be a sentimental journey should immediately be deferred...This spare, astringent look at the life of a Victorian woman is infused with a chilly sense of the limitations and disappointments of women’s lives — both then and now — and the shrinking of the spirit that can result...The fundamental drawback of “Nightingale,” directed by Joseph Hardy, is the off-putting persona of the woman Ms. Redgrave has conjured. The remote, privileged, terminally unsatisfied Beatrice can be oppressive company as she derides or ignores her young daughter and fumes about her husband’s inadequacies...By contrast, we want to spend more time in the company of Ms. Redgrave herself.
On Off Broadway B
(Matt Windman) In Redgrave's imaginative one-woman show "Nightingale," she tries to fill in the blanks by reinventing the story of her grandmother's life...Due to a medical condition that reportedly arose during rehearsals, Redgrave is currently performing the show with a script in hand while seated upstage at a hardwood desk and chair in front of a folding screen covered with pictures. This brings along positive and negative consequences. The show still succeeds as simple, poignant storytelling. The lack of movement actually helps focus one's attention on Redgrave's detailed facial expressions and slight shifts in her distinctive voice as Beatrice continues to age. However, it makes the production feel physically underwhelming. It's also occasionally difficult to determine whether Redgrave is portraying herself or Beatrice. But on the whole, "Nightingale" is a fascinating and touching project that is driven by a sincere love for forgotten family.
Time Out NY C+
(Helen Shaw) As she has gotten older, Lynn Redgrave seems to have grown somehow more luminous. Sitting at a desk for her one-woman Nightingale, Redgrave glows like a memorial candle, cropped silver hair shining in a lick above her. But this elegaic monologue, a dual portrait of Redgrave and her long-dead grandmother, burns with an unsteady flame. It flickers between true remembrances (quick glimpses of Redgrave’s own unhappy marriage, vanishingly fast references to the recent death of her niece Natasha Richardson) and invented ones. It’s in the inventions that the work gutters and goes out...But though the performer’s voice vibrates with refined command, when she says of Beatrice’s spirit, “Now her hand is in mine,” we cannot believe her. The stories haven’t rung true, either historically or poetically.
Entertainment Weekly C
(Tanner Stransky) Seems like it'd be a good idea, but the plot and story are so meandering that it quickly becomes rather confusing. The account needs to be more incisive, more biting, and better organized. (Plus, in-the-dark viewers might benefit from a copy of the Redgrave family history.) One flaw could be that Redgrave only pieced the narrative together with fragments she learned from her own mother well after the fact. Another is that, as the show's herky-jerky script makes clear, Redgrave is neither a trained nor particularly strong writer. Where she succeeds, though, is in delivering a refined performance — all while dealing with an undisclosed illness whose treatment requires her to sit behind a desk and read from her script through the performance. Despite the shapeless material, the 66-year-old pro still manages to cast a spell, incite a laugh, and transition deftly between the story's different characters, even if you don't always care about them.
Backstage A 13; Theatermania A 13; Talkin' Broadway A 13; NYer A 13; Variety A- 12; New York A- 12; Bloomberg News A- 12; New York Observer A- 12; Bergen Record B+ 11; Newsday B+ 11; Village Voice B+ 11; The Daily News B 10; The New York Times B 10; On Off Broadway B 10; Time Out NY C+ 8; Entertainment Weekly C 7; TOTAL: 178/16=11.13 (B+)