Sunday, March 11, 2007

Julianne Moore & the Marquis de Sade

The title of this post may conjure sordid imaginings that are in no way reflective of the content. My apologies now get your mind out of the gutter.

It occurred to me recently that I've been skimpy on the theater posts...and here I am a playgoer in Manhattan. I haven't been attending as often as in previous years but when I have made it I've seen shows near the end of their runs. It's discouraging to write about shows that none of my New York or NY visiting readers can even consider seeing. Nevertheless, I wanted to mention two I saw recently: both with film connections. They're closing today (sorry) but I felt the urge to mention them.

Julianne Moore's Broadway debut in David Hare's The Vertical Hour was a mixed blessing. I felt a huge sigh of relief seeing a favorite actor take on a challenging role that had nothing at all in common with what have become her default/typecast screen roles. She plays Nadia Blye, a war journalist who has left the killing fields behind for a more subdued life in academia. Nadia is engaged to an articulate handsome physical therapist (Andrew Scott) and the bulk of the play is her trip to meet her fiance's father, a confrontational doctor (Bill Nighy coming off of a big film year which included Notes on a Scandal and the "Davy Jones" role in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest) who has real issues with Nadia's stance on America's war in Iraq. She was initially for it and very public about it. He thinks it's insanity. Mix and spar.

Andrew Scott is excellent in the typically thankless inbetween role, stuck as a median between two showier characters. He perfectly understands his characters complicated relationship with his father and (delusionally) simple relationship with his girlfriend. Bill Nighy has the crowd pleasing role and he played the audience like a master the night I saw the production. Yet, true to form he's a showoff. It fits the role here but I always find him a touch obvious, if admittedly entertaning. Julianne gives the least accomplished performance but I feel a little bad for saying so. Hers is the central character but its also the least clearly written. The characters contradictions, though interesting, never fully come into focus. Does she miss that chaotic deadly adventure of her previous life? Is she lying to herself about everything? It doesn't help that Moore is saddled with a clumsy matching set of prologue and epilogue scenes with her students that feel out of place with the rest of the play, or at least way to "on the nose" where other scenes tease out their meanings.

In a way Nadia Blye is a spiritual cousin to Susan Traherne the self-conflicted lead character in Hare's Plenty, who was brilliantly essayed by Meryl Streep in the film adaptation. I couldn't help but wonder if Moore could have found a way to get at Blye's unresolved desires if she could have performed the thing in tight closeup. She has true internal magic with the camera nearby. On the stage vocal technique and body language come to the forefront and some of her physicality felt too hesitant and fragile for a characters that's supposed to be intimidate others with some regularity.

I had better luck with the second production, which was less explicitly about modern politics but still packed a political wallop with its eery universality about crumbling democracies, war profiteering, and uprisings.

The Classical Theater of Harlem is literally one block away from my best friends apartment. I have no excuse for not having been earlier. The theater often wins rave reviews. The production ending today is The Persecution and Assassination of Jean Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade but it's more commonly known as Marat/Sade. Theater lovers will know it as Peter Weiss' Tony winner from 1966. In the play ...well, actually, why go there: the title is the plot. Movie buffs might not know the play by name, but it'll still be familiar: it's a piece of the narrative of Quills which starred Geoffrey Rush and Kate Winslet back in 2000.

This production is ingeniously staged in front of you in a caged of space but its production design is all around you as well (fenced off). It's the only production I've ever watched through a fence but the effect was startling. You are inside the asylum. The actors mental patients are all around you. They're disruptive. They don't mind staring. They forget their lines. They try to jump forward to parts of the narrative they enjoy performing more. It's all extremely disorienting but the production is absolutely committed to their communal warped headspace.

If it sounds over the top, well... it is set inside of an insane asylum with a legendary provocateur as ringleader. I won't even go into the Marquis' mid-play monologue which contains stage business that is the most disturbing I have seen in years and which would surely bring John Waters to a standing ovation. T Ryder Smith (who was also excellent in the long running Underneath the Lintel a few years back) is the Marquis and gives a brave unsympathetic performance. He's unafraid to play up the inherent danger in the Marquis' manipulative persona. That's something that eluded Geoffrey Rush in his more cartoonish portrait in the film version. But my favorite performance in the production was Dana Watkins* as an inmate attempting to portray the murderous Charlotte Corday. For all of the gimmick of the plays: watching actors playing inmates trying to perform roles entirely unsuited for them, it would be easy for character choices to get lost in the shuffle. But Watkins's work feels fully formed and filled with range as he tries to navigate a juggling act that overwhelms him: remembering the part of this deadly woman, trying to overcome his own sleeping sickness, attempting to please the controlling Marquis and steering clear (as best as he can) of the violent inmate with whom he shares scenes.

It was a stunning production of difficult material. I'll be returning to the Classical Theater of Harlem next chance I get.

* I'd like to promote unknown actors more when I see fine work from them. but I have to tell you's been a continual frustration of mine as a fan of the arts that so many creative types are simply terrible about promoting themselves. Many working actors (the vast majority) don't have official sites or web presences at all. They don't even headshots up on their IMDB pages -most stage actors also do film work and you'd think they'd want their face and name connected in people's minds? It's so strange and rather maddening. And it's bugged me ever since I've moved to NY that I can rarely find out more about an actor I enjoyed in a play than what is in already available to me in their Playbill credit list


Anonymous said...

Pretty much agree with your assessment of Julianne in Vertical Hour, though suspect I may have preferred the piece as a whole. You're right on the money with Nighy's show-off predilection (though it DID entertain!), and also your assessment of Andrew Scott, who stole the show for me.


Anonymous said...

It's so sad how THE FILM EXPERIENCE talks about "god" Julianne Moore in the last time. OK, "laws of attraction" was bad, and "The Forgotten" wasn't really ambitious. Although she got a Golden Satellite Nomination and many positive reviews "Prize Winner of Defiance Ohio" is almost forgotten.
And then there was "Freedomland". She was one of the "worst" actresses of the year in the film experience's opinion. I think she wasn't bad in that film. ( I wrote that already before at the "obnoxious performances" article (december 30):
"Yes, SHE'S GOOD AT THIS STUFF and obviously drawn to fictional women with these issues but she's worked this terrain so many times now she's fast approaching self parody. That would be a sorry fate for one of the great screen actresses."
this is the description of one of the three worst performances of the year??!? (it was the film experience freedomland review)

come on- Julianne Moore is much better than you think she is in "Freedomland".

Julianne's performance in Freedomland is maybe not her best but its not THAT bad! certainly not one of the worst performances of the year!
If you hadn't seen Julianne in The Forgotten, The Hours or,e.g. "A map of the world", maybe you would've been thrilled about her performance in "Freedomland". She's compelling and notable - until the end we don't know the truth about her son because she acts so complex and subtle. I don't think it's over-acting, I think she gives a moving portrait of a mother who isn't very intelligent but can't accept and can't get over the thing she did to her sun, a mother who tries to to forget about her fault.
The film itself isn't good, thats right, but Moore makes the best of it. )

Well, then there was "Children of Men" - unfortunately her part was rather small (but the film got A-...)

but I remember what you wrote when the first broadway news came:
"ohmygod. Julianne Moore herself -- coming to Broadway. I am so full of joy right now. My faith has been restored. I hope She will forgive me for doubting." (march 22,2006)
and now you say she gives the least accomplished performance.......... unfortunately I couldn't watch the play... but GOD on stage, ain't that great?? I think it should be...

Let's hope GOD comes back with I'M NOT HERE and SAVAGE GRACE.


she will. she's due for a hit (at least critically) so say I.

I must have faith.