Sleeping Beauty

Dancing in the dark: Frank Langella, left, and Ray Liotta in Match.Photo: Joan Marcus

If you want to experience what good directing and inspired acting can do for a nice little script, Match should be your meat. Stephen Belber’s play provides a spirited blueprint for directorial and histrionic bravura: It concerns a former ballet master, now small-time dance teacher, living in wistful contentment in a dingy, if cozily overstuffed Inwood walk-up, about to receive a youngish married couple as his first guests in years.

The apartment is as bursting with mementos (a profusion of framed pictures, posters, books, gewgaws, mortality-defying furniture) as Tobi Powell’s head is crammed with memories of a dancing and choreographing career spanning 40-odd years, a couple of continents, and countless motley experiences. A man of ample contradictions, this Tobi: American and European, staunch and effete, campily funny and core-sentimental, he is a spinning bundle of surprises, many hilarious, others touching. Mike and Lisa Davis are callers from Seattle: Eager Lisa is researching the ballet world of the fifties; surly Mike, with a macho contempt for dance, tags along, injecting hostile comments into his wife’s solicitous questions and Tobi’s affably anecdotal answers.

Delightful effusions and crackling sparring result from this bumpy triangulation; even more so when the true purpose of the visit emerges: Mike’s deceased mother, a retired ballerina, never quite knew who the boy’s father was; Tobi is one of two likely candidates. What follows is a grabbing, suspenseful, funny-sad story, with wit and poignancy jostling each other, and three very different beings growing in stature as they comically or fiercely muddle through misprisions toward a genuine, precipice-bridging understanding. Laughter and tears, and queer, quirky surprises abound and entertain.

Match provides a spirited blueprint for directorial and histrionic bravura.”

But for all this to jell and score, Nicholas Martin had to provide his expert direction, and three actors had to surpass themselves. Frank Langella’s Tobi is human as well as theatrical, the actor not only drawing every ounce of humor and humanity from the part, but also informing it with irresistible playfulness, appositely choreographic movement, savvily elastic, leisurely or split-second timing, and orchestral intonation such as you have seldom witnessed and will not forget. Ray Liotta brings a perfect meld of violence and vulnerability to Mike, mining the buried good in accumulated crassness. And Jane Adams’s Lisa is a delicate kaleidoscope of complaisant reactions and gradually awakened, shattering emotions.

Add to this James Noone’s delectably outré set, Michael Krass’s characterful costumes (including several showstopping sweaters), and Brian MacDevitt’s subtly sophisticated lighting, and you have an evening of prolific laughs, cathartic tears, and ear-to-ear smiles.

Playwright A. R. Gurney is having a rejuvenescence: After the good Big Bill, we get the even better Mrs. Farnsworth, about a rich Connecticut matron who takes an adult-education writing course in the hope of expanding a catchy opening paragraph into a novel. Democrat Marjorie Farnsworth had a completed first draft, but her husband, Republican Forrest Farnsworth, destroyed it. Published, it would have been a bombshell, for it starts with a youthful ski-weekend affair between sensitive Emily from Vassar and Myles from Yale: handsome and charming, but bigger on beer than on brains. Gordon, the class instructor and an angry radical, figures out that Emily and Myles must be modeled on Mrs. F. and George W., which she, however, staunchly denies.

We hear about how and why the MS was destroyed from Marjorie, who somewhat improbably allows Gordon to draw out all sorts of intimate autobiographical details in front of the other students. It transpires that her husband has followed her to the school, and she forthwith goes out to meet him, but, spraining her ankle, waits for him in their car. Forrest takes on both teacher and class, unflappably telling them his side of the story. Though Gordon is hostile and the students are skeptical, Forrest’s version carries at least as much conviction as hers.

Despite a too-cute trick ending, there is wit in the telling, aroma in the characterizations, and such fairness in giving conflicting persuasions equal voice, that genuine intellectual stimulation and titillating suspense are maintained. On top of that, you get the adorably bumbling Sigourney Weaver and the aristocratically imperturbable John Lithgow as husband and wife, along with the good but somewhat overintense Danny Burstein as Gordon, plus three apt supporting performances, all under Jim Simpson’s canny direction. You will enjoy this short but pregnant play—regardless of your political orientation.

The revival of Michael John LaChiusa’s 1993 First Lady Suite by the Transport Group is, to quote Flanders and Swann, a transport of delight. Musically fascinating and verbally irreverent, it jauntily weaves fact and fiction about Jackie Kennedy (and Lady Bird Johnson), Mamie Eisenhower (and Marian Anderson), Bess (and Margaret) Truman, Eleanor Roosevelt (and Amelia Earhart), into charmingly piquant, surreal fantasies. Also included are Ike’s paramour Kay Summersby, and Eleanor’s presumptive lover Lorena “Hick” Hickok. Of the spouses, only Ike appears briefly, and there are also some secretaries and aides.

The four vignettes center, respectively, on Air Force One’s flight toward the fateful motorcade in Dallas, on an imaginary flight into the past by Mamie and Marian, on Margaret Truman’s flight of fancy into concert singing as viewed by her fidgety mother (saucily played by James Hindman in drag), and on a night flight in Earhart’s plane by Eleanor and Hick, with Hick commenting sardonically (and jealously) on Amelia and Eleanor’s cockpit chumminess.

LaChiusa’s music is subtle and tricky, making demands on both singers and spectators. Aptly scored for two pianos and cello, it insidiously wins you over as it ranges from near-operatic to jazzy, from cajoling to caustic, and, like the madcap lyrics, takes fanciful flight. All ten performers are impeccable as both singers and actors, but I especially liked Donna Lynne Champlin as Jackie’s weary secretary, Cheryl Stern and Sherry D. Boone as the aerodynamic duo of Mamie and Marian, and Mary Beth Peil, Mary Testa, and Julia Murney in the ticklish threesome of Eleanor, Hick, and Amelia. Jack Cummings III has staged with commendable simplicity, and the visuals, though spare, do not disappoint. Remarkably, there is no electronic amplification, a rare blessing nowadays, amply justified by the fresh voices and fine acoustics.

Sleeping Beauty