Corrections or additions?
This review by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the
May 2, 2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
New York Review: Passion Play
Peter Nichols’ "Passion Play" is having a fine
yet somewhat dispassionate revival Off-Broadway at the Minetta Lane
Theater. When it originally opened on Broadway 18 years ago under
the title "Passion" (lest anyone might think they were getting
Jesus on a cross), its reception, even with Frank Langella in the
lead, was considerably cooler than the one it received at its 1981
London premiere. While "Passion Play" was brought back to
great acclaim to London’s West End last season, courtesy of the Donmar
Warehouse, the New York staging by Elinor Renfield is new and
I’m not sure that Renfield, who has been teaching at Princeton since
1987, and more recently at the New School University, has breathed
any new life into one of the more provocative plays of the last
but she doesn’t compromise its more disturbing notions and qualities.
What is missing is a sense of sexual tension and urgency that might
propel this play better for American audiences, together with a cast
that might better inspire the same.
In that "Passion Play" still gives one the feeling of
a high tea affair, wherein tragic and religious overtones (courtesy
of occasional blasts of the St. Matthew Passion) are filtered through
furtive glances and subtle innuendoes, there is little (as I’m sure
the author intended) expressed to suggest the sensual and carnal
the title implies. Instead, the author of "Joe Egg" and
National Health," tantalizes us with his clever and insinuating
writing in Act I which promises a lot more than Act II in fact
Nevertheless, the play’s second half spirals deliberately toward its
inevitable conclusion: that infidelity, more often than not, damages
a marriage. Maybe it is a simplistic morality tale, but the simplicity
and directness of the telling is the play’s greatest asset.
The major premise is whether man’s unquenchable desire for sex is
at odds with his monogamously geared society. The play’s dizzyingly
contrived structure places simultaneously on stage both the husband
James (Simon Jones) and wife Eleanor (Maureen Anderman) with their
respective inner selves Jim (John Curliss) and Nell (Leslie Lyles).
These inner selves are amusingly intrusive in varying degrees as
alter ego, and more simply playing the part of an interior devil’s
advocate. The result sounds like a miniature chamber oratorio. Where
the play works best is in the way James and Eleanor are seen in
with what they say and what they think. (Shades of Eugene O’Neill’s
"Strange Interlude.") This builds expectedly toward more pain
than pleasure as their relationship disintegrates through encounters
both marital and extramarital.
There is a pulse that beats with originality throughout the work.
However, the triangular affair between a middle-aged man and Agnes
(Lucy Martin), a home-wrecking tart, becomes a contest in which
wife, Eleanor, considers suicide and even the possibilities of a
situation. The characters are guided through deceits, recriminations,
remorse, and resignation, by Renfield’s carefully orchestrated, if
somewhat indulgent, pacing. At their best, they can be praised for
dissecting complex characters with poignancy and even playfulness.
Anderman, who more than held her own last season against Eileen
in "The Waverly Gallery," wrings a respectable amount of
out of Eleanor’s distress. At first deeply hurt and then fearful that
her once-secure marriage is being wrecked by infidelity, Eleanor is
contrasted with a more neurotic Nell, as played by Lyles with mannered
eccentricities. Jones and Curliss are an amusing pair of Tweedledum
and Tweedledee, victims of simple lust. Jones, who can always be
on to bring a British countenance to any play, presents James as a
mere victim of man’s inability to remain faithful. Apparently James,
who is bent on restoring both his marriage and the damaged paintings
he repairs for a living, is out to make a case that his philandering
is acceptable male behavior.
As for his other self, Jim, Curliss appropriates a more cynical and
emotional perspective of love, life, and his ever-present conflict
with religion and its dogmas. Martin, as the over-the-hill Lolita,
is as unsubtle as she is coquettish, as she parades her unrestrained
sexuality with brazen, if not convincing, assuredness. Natachia Roy
has a go being bitter as Kate, the busybody best friend, whose ex
was one of Agnes’s conquests, and who uncovers the triangle. Whatever
you call "Passion," it is a play that will still invite more
thought than the prospects of promiscuity. Three stars: You won’t feel
— Simon Saltzman
York, 212-307-4100. $25 & $55.
When the Chicago-based Steppenwolf Theater Company invades Broadway
(as they have in recent seasons with astonishing productions of
Grapes of Wrath" and "Buried Child"), you can always
them to set in motion a veritable twister of dramatic turbulence.
Although the highest level of bravado acting is a given with this
company, their collective input on `One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’
does not offer enough to keep Dale Wasserman’s play from appearing
dated and surprisingly dull. Despite a searing energized performance
by Gary Sinise as McMurphy, Terry Kinney’s forceful direction hasn’t
done enough to salvage this problematic, indeed neurotic play set
in a mental institution.
In trying to give it cohesive shape, Kinney does everything but whip
this play into submission. Yet even with the help of a fine 21-member
cast, only a modicum of credibility emerges. Indeed Kinney must deal
with the author’s confusing mixture of melodramatic inanity with the
more realistically deployed contrivances that help to make this
something of a special case. It takes a lot of patience to become
both empathetic and more than a little anxious for this aggressively
optimistic inmate who, after being convicted of statutory rape, allows
himself to be confined rather than submit to time on a work farm.
Sinise plunges into the role of Randle P. McMurphy (originated on
Broadway by Kirk Douglas and recreated on the screen by Jack
with a boldly manufactured machismo, as well as a measure of naivete.
If Sinise’s increasingly frenetic, but always cunning, attempts to
incite a revolt among the inmates add the necessary excitement to
the asylum antics, they still don’t make Wasserman’s melodrama easy
As McMurphy’s nemesis Nurse Ratched, Amy Morton has given the soft
pedal to this she-demon’s barely suppressed neurosis. Morton
to her assigned patients with the prerequisite touch of motherly hate,
but she is never chilling enough by half. Other performances, like
Eric Johner’s stuttering, mother-fixated Billy; Danton Stone’s
Martini; K. Todd Freeman’s unconscionably spineless Dr. Spivey; Tim
Sampson’s mostly speechless hulk of an Indian Chief; and Mariann
and Sarah Charipar, as a couple of ward-crashing floozies come close,
but never exceed the boundaries of artful histrionics.
It was Ross Lehman, as the emotional wreck Dale, who impressed me
most with his sensitive projection of insecurity. He provokes genuine
laughter with such erudite observations as, "This place is a
The mirth may be as rampant as the madness and the terror in Kinney’s
staging, but after two-and-a-half hours of these
set in the confines of Robert Brill’s cold, calculated, hallucinatory
setting, you may find yourself asking for a straitjacket of your own.
Two stars: Maybe you should have stayed home.
— Simon Saltzman
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