Friday, November 2, 2012

Sweet Bird of Youth: Sweaty Delusions

Cappadocia. You should go there. It's çok güzel.
I once tried to learn Turkish and attempted to use it with a Turkish taxi driver during a long drive through Cappadocia.  Like an idiot Turkish baby, my skill by that point in the trip involved saying "very" to describe everything.  Very hot, very dollars (for expensive house), very blessings (for sneezing), very beautiful (for everything else). 

Sweet Bird of Youth is a play I could probably describe in Turkish.  It is just very...very boozy, very gauzy, and often very ridiculous.  It's thick, rich, redolent melodrama.  In the end, I'm not sure that is a good thing.  The play is all atmosphere and histrionics but with minimal momentum.  Feeling the stickiness of a dirty tryst, the sweaty, humidity of a Florida morning and the judgment of moralizing locals I found this production at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago to be a less compelling car crash to watch than I would have expected from the premise. 

Here, Finn Wittrock plays Chance Wayne a drifter and gigolo (!) who brings Alexandra del Lago (Diane Lane) a famous actress to his hometown to pull off some hare-brained schemed he has cooked up.  He wishes to reunite with his childhood sweetheart Heavenly but he was driven from town by her father under mysterious circumstances many years before. 

David Cromer's direction did not clarify the murky material and did not illuminate it either.  Cromer has staged each of the three acts in such a way that they don't feel like the same play.  First, during the bedroom scene it was all about sensuality and texture.  Billowing, translucent curtains, warm breezes, silken pajamas, dream-like memories, images and projections.  Very Tennessee Williams.  The second Act was odd, cold, and mechanical.  With a massive silver wall it felt like we had suddenly gone from Florida to an alien planet full of cavernous spaces.  You reached the beach through a door in the sky.  Absurdism?  I'm not sure.  The third Act was frenzied and confusing with a party that spins out of control.  The turntable set which involved a hotel bar rotated in such a way that it was hard to see the action from time to time and it wasn't clear what motivated such a choice (ok Chance's world is spinning out of control and he is losing his balance and footing).  Despite these extreme oscillations in texture and tone, I don't think Cromer was working against the text here.  The play itself feels uneven and imbalanced, but the staging choices unhelpfully emphasized that.  And at some point it ends up about castration so...what can you do.  Go with it I guess.

Diane Lane and Finn Wittrock hurl themselves into their roles and the trip to Chicago was well-justified in seeing them perform. There is a moment where Diane Lane, hungover, make-up smeared on her face, is clutching Finn Wittrock's chest with her red painted fingernails.  Taking handfuls of taut flesh in her long fingers.  Running her hands up and down his body to confirm its existence and her reality. And for that I thank you David Cromer.  Fantasy and delusion indeed.

Diane Lane manages to magically go from looking ravaged to transcendent before your eyes.  She's beautiful.  We knew that.  But she is both corporeal and otherworldly.  It served the character of Alexandra del Lago well that Lane has this talent where she can suddenly just turn on a light inside herself and glow with radiance.  She pulls you in with unexpected force making it quite clear why Lane is (in life and on stage) someone you don't want to take your eyes off of.  Her del Lago starts out lost but claws her way back and Lane projects that uninhibited inner strength.  I just wish she had been playing Blanche DuBois instead. 

Finn Wittrock (besides looking fantastic in his white silk pajama bottoms) is fully-committed to his character.  He is the personification of youth, beauty, and virility.  He has a dream that borders on fantasy and he thinks this is his moment to capture that dream.  The tragic beauty of his character is that he believes he is fighting to regain his lost promise.  But the truth is he never had that promise and everything about his memory of the past and his vision of the future is delusion.  His one ally, Aunt Nonnie, sits down with him as Chance reminisces about what never was.  She tries to get him to embrace reality but he cannot.  Wittrock has a strained smile on his face and no matter what is said to him or what is done to him he refuses to let that undermine his excitement and happiness for his delusional-dream.  Even when he knows that the dream is crumbling his smile does not waver.  But Wittrock's body starts to betray Chance with energetic tics and trembling hands shoved deep into his pockets.  When he can no longer deny reality he lets loose a primal scream and I feared for Wittrock as a his body and voice shook in the final moments of the play.  He held nothing back and it was terrifying.  It took me a while to feel for Chance but Wittrock's performance grabbed me by the end and would not let go.

Seeing two tremendous actors swim around in this stylized Tennessee Williams swamp of words and images was fascinating but I would have rather seen them dive into better material.  Nevertheless, it was great to see Wittrock fulfill the promise of his terrific supporting turn in Death of a Salesman in a leading role here and there is much cause for celebration to see Diane Lane on the stage after being absent from it for many years. 

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