The Waiting Game

Illustration by Rodrigo CorralPhoto: Carol Rosegg

‘Defunct things,” announces Eva (Mercedes Ruehl), in her sumptuous, near-Strangelovian Mitteleuropa accent, “should declare themselves defunct.” A twilight Jewish aristocrat from an Old World fallen to ashes, Eva is one of those defunct things, and knows it. The next generation doesn’t have the benefit, or the burden, of that self-knowledge: Eva’s manic daughter Lili (Lily Rabe) and her bluff Wasp prince, Nick (Kieran Campion), gleam in the amniotic lake water of the Catskills and the impossibly young summer sun of 1960. Nick thinks he’s going to build a whole new city, ignoring the rubble he’s already left in his wake. Lili thinks she can escape her mother’s crepuscular embrace and write a new life for herself, as fabulous and self-created as the lies she compulsively tells. These kids are flashing discharges of the American energy that leveled, graded, and rebuilt Europe—then napalmed Vietnam. They spark, they arc, and they’re spent. But Eva is in no hurry. She watches, and, when she sees fit, she stops them in mid-orbit—maybe for their own good. Maybe for hers. Maybe just to achieve a small reduction in ambient chaos. As played by Ruehl, she’s one of the grandest stage creations of the last twenty years—a great wreck of history sitting sad and sympathetic, patient as death, at the center of The American Plan. Ruehl, an actress of bodhisattvan discipline, makes waiting look positively epic.

Richard Greenberg’s plays are made of very fine, filigreed dialogue designed to be declaimed, then disclaimed, then reclaimed, in a restless shuffle of philosophical and psychological rummy. There’s a hyperverbal autism to the Greenberg oeuvre (best displayed in Take Me Out, where aphasic pitchers squared off against logorrheic hitters). His characters do not converse so much as declare things, as if they’re all competing to be the quippiest elegist at Noël Coward’s funeral. And there’s a sturdy formality to his architecture, which can come off as fussy pretense: His titles often appear spotlit in a line of dialogue, which is, more often than not, the clunkiest line in the show, like a brand name emblazoned on a wedding dress.

All of this can easily defeat a lesser production (I’m recalling the sprawling, empty McMansion that was A Naked Girl on the Appian Way), but Plan is light on its feet, thanks to the delicate direction of David Grindley (Journey’s End). He’s encouraged Rabe and Campion to take potentially infuriating characters—Nick the dissipating mirage of American perfection, Lili the fugitive neurotic—and find two young gods drunk on a primal chaos they don’t even know they possess. But Eva has seen it. And Ruehl, in playing her, simply bears this knowledge when she could parade it, or detonate it, stage center. Instead, she speaks constantly, evenly, letting Greenberg’s cunning language smolder and smoke, like a slow peat fire. Eva can wait, and so can Ruehl. And waiting, she shows us, has its own weight. —S.B.

Ian Rickson’s production of Hedda Gabler opens with a semi-nude Hedda, played by Mary-Louise Parker, reclining on a stiff settee, the curve of her backside resplendently facing the audience. She’s an Ingres odalisque, but a restless rather than a sensuous one. It’s an arresting opening and a promising one, suggesting that Rickson is about to give us a fresh view of Ibsen’s pathologically self-centered but captivating heroine: Now that we’ve seen Hedda so vulnerable, so fleshy, we’ll surely have a new perspective when she starts cruelly (yet casually) insulting the hats of elderly aunts, brandishing loaded pistols, and heartlessly burning symbolic infants in the parlor fireplace.

But that jarringly poetic opening appears to have lost its way en route to another play. Under Rickson’s guidance, this new adaptation (by Christopher Shinn) of Ibsen’s 1890 play does the rude, inscrutable, always compelling character of Hedda a disservice by trying to explain her behavior, instead of leaving us with the unsettling pleasure of puzzling it out.

Hedda is meant to confound us. She’s a preternaturally bored creature, a general’s daughter newly wed to dull but well-meaning academic Jørgen Tesman (played by Michael Cerveris), who may not have the resources to support her in her preferred manner. She has contempt for everyone around her, although to call her unfeeling suggests an absence of something, when her real problem is a gnawing presence: The possibility of feeling taunts her. In her raw selfishness, she senses that the ability to feel is the toy every other kid has but she lacks.

Parker addresses that aspect of Hedda, but only briefly and in the most obvious place: the line in which, attempting to justify her erratic behavior to her nemesis Judge Brack (Peter Stormare, looking and acting like a Norwegian Snidely Whiplash pulled from the bottom of the herring barrel), she confesses, “Something comes over me, all of a sudden. And then I can’t stop myself.” That’s the point at which the overobvious brittle veneer that coats Parker’s line readings cracks a little bit.

But not enough. Parker’s Hedda inspires neither sympathy nor revulsion, even though, ideally, the character should invoke every feeling in between. Rickson has shaped the material so that the hapless humans who so annoy Hedda aren’t just average, dull, well-meaning people but hopeless drips, the sort of mouth-breathers everyone wants to avoid on the playground of life. When they say something stupid, as they invariably do, Parker’s Hedda responds either with an impatient eye roll or an attempt at a Jack Benny–style deadpan stare before lashing out with a trademark cutting remark.

The audience laughs, drawn into her extended inside joke instead of being horrified—and eventually moved—by its painful intricacy. This is Hedda as sarcastic, know-it-all teenager: Every line is a wink at the audience, the equivalent of saying, “You’d go nuts, too, if you had to be around these twerps.”

No one wants to see another fossilized Hedda Gabler. But you can’t modernize the material by making it jocular, as Rickson, fresh from his acclaimed production of The Seagull, has done here. Some of the performers seem to be straining against the production’s facile nature: Cerveris gives Jørgen a naked, unvarnished neediness that’s touching. But nothing in this Hedda Gabler haunted me as much as a comment overheard as we filed out of the theater—an approving remark on how “playful” the production was. He had a point: It’s not every day you get a chance to yuk it up with Henrik. —S.Z.

The American Plan
By Richard Greenberg.
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
Through March 15.

Hedda Gabler
By Henrik Ibsen.
American Airlines Theatre.
Through March 29.

The Waiting Game