Down Memory Lane With Teacher: The Naughty Madame Melville

Sex is a very difficult thing to accomplish onstage. I hear

it’s as common as cherry pie backstage, but that’s nothing to do with us.

Onstage sex is tricky. People, after all, are watching.

Voyeurism doesn’t suit the communal activity of theater.

Movies are different; movies are more private. There are dirty movies, no dirty

plays. They try . Remember all the

fuss about Nicole Kidman, the real live very briefly naked movie star in The Blue Room ? Thrilling, wasn’t it? You

can’t get it out of your mind!

Nah …. At its ballyhooed best, the adaptation of Arthur

Schnitzler’s disturbing 1900 drama Reigen

(which became Max Ophüls’ movie La Ronde )

was undangerous, not erotic, modish, not carnal. It became what’s acceptable in

an anemic culture-a light sex comedy of manners, or something tamely, acceptably voyeuristic. The early plays

of Harold Pinter were charged with an erotic subtext. Christopher Hampton’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses was nice and

weird. Patrick Marber’s Closer , the

first cybersex play in dramatic history, on the other hand, was essentially

about everything but sex. It satirized it instead.

You have to wrack your

brains to recall a sexy play. And if you do, it’s no good. Which brings us

reluctantly to Richard Nelson’s sexual coming-of-age story, Madame Melville , starring Macaulay

Culkin, at the Promenade Theatre. The former child superstar-forever lumbered,

it seems, with his Home Alone

movies-is boldly trying to bust out of his own adorable screen myth, though

with spooky results. Now 20, he seems to convey both innocence and insolence in

an apparent split identity, like someone stiffly uncomfortable in his own

smooth skin.

The character he’s playing, however, is uncomfortable, an awkward schoolboy, as sensitive and pure as a

poet in the making. Mr. Culkin plays a middle-aged American, Carl, who recalls

his 15-year-old self being deflowered in 1966 by his literature teacher at the

American School in Paris. Mr. Nelson’s Madame

Melville is a memory play about sex and eroticism-as well as adolescent

yearning and loneliness, art and books, beauty and growing up. But I regret

that this fine dramatist, who also directs, overreaches in a slender,

intermissionless drama while adding a dollop of comforting sentiment that’s

wholly uncharacteristic of him.

Mr. Nelson is the

playwright who’s made a brilliant specialty of the perverse Anglo-American

relationship, with such wryly intelligent dramas as Some Americans Abroad and New

England . His recent Goodnight

Children Everywhere , about a family in wartime Britain, was exact in every

near-Chekhovian detail and contained an offstage scene of youthful eroticism

that was the more disturbing for its refined, gentle restraint. But alas, Madame Melville mostly overstates its

central coming-of-age theme, to the point of turning into a boisterous sex

comedy that might have been tailored for Broadway had it not been written by

Richard Nelson. Quotations from the Kama

Sutra get the biggest laughs. Other references-Bonnard, Bach and Joan of

Arc, if you please-are too consciously weighty even for a horny, eager kid like

Carl, the unexpected guest in the adult world of arts and letters. And while

I’m moaning, even the prominently displayed new poster of Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle jars like a brightly lit neon

signal spelling out the words “1960’s Intellectual France. See Also: Truffaut.”

It’s no one’s fault here

that any play set in Paris automatically declares its superior calling card to

the gullible classes. Look at the pretentious work of Yasmina Reza, if you

must, or proceed to Neil Simon, of all surprising people. Mr. Simon’s Broadway

hit, The Dinner Party , is set in

Paris with French characters-the better to convince us the play is brimming

stylishly with sexy-sexy ideas about marriage and life and the big wide

existential monde out there. Come on!

It’s about as French as Felix Unger. Not that it matters. Everyone knows it’s Felix Unger, and Everyone

likes him.

Mr. Nelson is in a

different category to the journeyman boulevard dramatist. Yet Madame Melville’s

book-lined Parisian apartment strangely possesses no atmosphere of anything

authentically French-including the books. The set by Thomas Lynch could be more

or less anywhere. It might be the apartment of a lucky graduate student. But

then its owner, Madame Melville (the excellent Joely Richardson, using a

hypnotic Anglo-French accent), appears for a bewildering chunk of the action in

pigtails. Pigtails! Ms. Richardson is young enough without being made to look

about the same age as Macaulay Culkin. Yet Madame Melville is supposed to be in

her 30’s-a somewhat seasoned lady who fancies a naïve, willingly seduced boy,

age 15. Their relationship should appear to be illicit, not safe or basically

wholesome and embarrassed. But if the lady possesses little more than the

giggly, dithery flirtatiousness of a pigtailed teen out to get the simpering

schoolboy, where’s the eroticism and what’s the fuss?

It’s true that memory distorts. But so much? The boy, now

middle-aged, looks back in nostalgia to his night and day with the woman who

changed his life (and set him on the road to becoming a writer). The echoes of

Tennessee Williams in the opening moments comfort and intrigue us. The first

sight of Macaulay Culkin, seeming to greet us stiffly with a half-smirk on the

face of a fallen angel, intrigues us the more. And perhaps Mr. Nelson’s

distorted sense of Madame Melville is deliberate. The hero remembers his first

love and infatuation much younger than she really was, as a painter filters

shapes through the dying light.

If so, the sophistry is

too much to sustain in a memory play that otherwise spells out everything else,

including-we learn manipulatively at the curtain-the early death of Madame

Melville from cancer. The dramatist always writes elegantly, but the clichés of

melodrama are uncomfortably present. The heroine is less the enigmatic mystery

we’re led to believe, more a petulant tease who’s just split up with the

married math teacher. Madame M. is also an aspiring novelist, writing an

earnest version of Joan of Arc. Her

friend and neighbor, Ruth (the winning Robin Weigert), is a concert violinist

and dropout Jersey girl in Paris who’s fleeing a stormy marriage. She’s a

thirtysomething quasi-bohemian who discovers she’s got crabs. And into this

free-spirited place steps Macaulay Culkin’s sweet and innocent schoolboy Carl,

whose parents are worried.

Mr. Culkin doesn’t look sweet and innocent to me. He’s far

more interesting than that. He seems odd and trapped and insinuating, capable

of dissolute things. He should have seduced her! If the roles had been reversed

and Mr. Culkin’s Carl had seduced an innocent Madame Melville, we would have

been onto something. But not the play Mr. Nelson wished to write.