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Performance Enhancement

Both The Country Girl and Les Liaisons Dangereuses give virtuoso actors a chance to triumph.

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Illustration by Gluekit  

Sweet gigs don’t get much sweeter than the one Clifford Odets hands the lead actor in his backstage drama The Country Girl. When a broken-down drunk named Frank Elgin is given one last chance to prove he can stay dry long enough to learn his lines and open a new show, the actor playing him gets endless chances to shine: now acting intentionally badly (when Frank flubs an audition), now acting self-consciously well (when he ad-libs dazzlingly to win the part), now waxing rhapsodic about the good old days before he started to “beat the bottle pretty hard,” and, once in a while, bullshitting his director about just how vast a quantity of cough syrup it takes to fight his cold. It’s like a year’s worth of Tony Award clips, all in one play.

Morgan Freeman isn’t the first guy you’d picture playing a doubt-stricken, self-sabotaging artist. As the walking embodiment of sober-minded poise, he’d usually be the artist’s consoling pal. But in Mike Nichols’s revival at the Jacobs, the role often seems a natural fit. Freeman’s customary lo-fi tone helps tease out one of the sly points of this play. The performative streak in alcoholics, Odets suggests—the toxic blend of narcissism and self-destruction that leads them into a life of ass-covering deception—is something like the life of the theater: Actors tell stories and alcoholics tell stories, only alcoholics don’t get to leave the stage. Poor Frank spends much of the evening trying to deceive everybody, including himself.

Freeman could use a little more fire sometimes—he’s more compelling when Frank is backpedaling than when he’s sticking up for himself—and for that matter so could the production around him. Frances McDormand captures the stoic devotion of Frank’s wife, Georgie, and Peter Gallagher does a fine job conveying the determination of Frank’s director Bernie to guide or drag him to opening night. In spite of all the actors’ careful work, the connections between the characters seem tenuous. It’s particularly off-putting when Odets leaves Georgie and Bernie alone together, mainly to argue about whether she’s helping her husband or destroying him. The twists in their relationship come as quite a surprise—and not in a good way.

Some of this trouble lies in the writing, which idles for what feels like an hour in the middle of the play. Will Georgie stay with Frank in Boston? Will she really, really stay? Didn’t we just watch this scene? But it’s hard to think too badly of Clifford Odets. After raising New York–lefty argot to high art in Awake and Sing!, he blended slang and theatrical shoptalk to reach a level of virtuosity in this 1950 play that few writers since then have had the talent or the nerve to match. (Mamet has done it; Sorkin has tried.) “Lady, you ride that man like a broom,” Bernie tells Georgie. Nichols’s revival lets us feel the impact of lines like that one, but it’s not always the right kind of impact: They sometimes hit like mallets when they ought to crack like whips.

By far the most intriguing thing in Rufus Norris’s new revival of Les Liaisons Dangereuses is seeing what the usually upright, generally wholesome Laura Linney does to the character of the scheming sexual adventuress La Marquise de Merteuil—and vice versa.

From the first glimpse of Scott Pask’s set, which distills the decadence of pre-revolutionary France to some lush drapes and furniture built for two, this doesn’t look like a place fit for anyone who’s concurrently playing a First Lady on HBO. Valmont (rakish Ben Daniels), the casually amoral aristocrat who presides with the Marquise over a tangled web of sexual intrigue, offers that her favorite word is betrayal. Actually, the Marquise replies, “it’s cruelty.” In that quietly bravura little moment, Linney doesn’t just prove she’s got the range to depict the Marquise’s fiendish calculation, vindictiveness, and—when things go awry—flashes of pain. She also wears a genial little smile that opens up charming possibilities for the role.

“I have dedicated myself to destroying your sex,” the Marquise tells Valmont in the early going. Normally this is the kind of sentiment that might dent your affection for a character. Coming from Linney, who exudes intelligence and fair-mindedness, a remark that ought to reveal the depravity of the Marquise’s life instead becomes a backhanded indictment of the Marquise’s world. Amid the vile corruption of the ancien régime, you think, what can a girl do but crush oppressive men? Thanks to Linney, Christopher Hampton’s play could almost be the story of some Austen heroine gone horribly, horribly to seed.

The news that the downtown troupe Elevator Repair Service planned to stage the first part of The Sound and the Fury word for word struck me as a dubious idea that, in the hands of a company with the brains and guts to mash up William James with Henry James (among other provocations), still might yield something cool. The result, now onstage at New York Theatre Workshop, turns out to be nearly the opposite.

There are a million bad reasons to adapt a book of this stature for the theater, and maybe three good ones. The best reason of all is the chance to deploy the unique tools of the stage to enhance or illuminate great material. Though I didn’t expect it, director John Collins proves that William Faulkner’s book suits the theater like a dream. In the section of the novel that ERS has dramatized, the mute “idiot” Benjy traces the story of the Compson family as his mind wanders over 30 years of its decline. By setting the action in a nebulous mix of the present day and the characters’ era, and leaving his actors loitering around a set that depicts the Compson home, Collins quite beautifully captures Benjy’s inability to understand time. Lightning-quick scene changes allow past and present to exist fully and simultaneously for him, and for the audience.

Alas, the company finds many chances to undercut its own idea. By adding dance breaks and switching characters and generally making a famously confusing story even more confusing, they spend far too much of the 150-minute running time taxing the audience’s patience. Preserving all of Faulkner’s text, down to the last damned “he said,” also seems perversely completist. Much as I admire quixotic theatrical crusades, it’s hard not leave this one feeling that some awfully talented people have out-downtowned themselves.

The Country Girl
By Clifford Odets.
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses
By Christopher Hampton.
American Airlines Theatre.

The Sound and the Fury
Adapted by Elevator Repair Service.
New York Theatre Workshop. Through May 18.

E-mail: theatercritic@newyorkmag.com.


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