An Exceptional Cast Rescues Reza’s Folly

021207 article heilpern An Exceptional Cast  Rescues Reza’s Folly“Actors? Actors are cowards. Actors have no guts,” announces the actor at the start of Yasmina Reza’s A Spanish Play at the Classic Stage Company. In which case, may I welcome back with open arms to the New York stage one of the gutsiest of them all, Zoe Caldwell. She’s among the greatest actresses this country has known, and won her fourth Tony for her Maria Callas in Terrence McNally’s 1995 Master Class.

Ms. Caldwell hits all the notes, including some priceless ones that aren’t there. She’s witty and sly and can make a line like “You wear a bun in the film?” sing with the indignation of Lady Bracknell’s “A handbag?” She brings a playful subtext to Ms. Reza’s one-dimensional heroine, Pilar. She can appear so vulnerable and tender that you want to protect and hold her. At other times, her dark, transfixing eyes flash like Medea’s—then watch out! It’s a joy to see her onstage again.

What Zoe Caldwell and this exceptional cast—including the always remarkable Linda Emond—are doing in Ms. Reza’s unfortunate play, only they can say. They’re rising buoyantly above the material, that’s for sure.

Ms. Reza’s deadly, over-dense, pseudo-Pirandellian play-within-a-play about the nature of theatrical illusion and actors philosophizing about acting provides us with a perfect existential example of what actors must put themselves through. A former actress herself who came to fame with her 1998 comedy about a blank canvas, Art, the author of A Spanish Play manages to get actors wrong every time. It’s no secret they have their vanities and self-doubts, but actors are much more interesting than the cowards and vain fools Ms. Reza makes them out to be.

“Players are ‘the abstracts and brief chronicles of the time’; the motley representatives of human nature,” goes the opening line of William Hazlitt’s On Actors and Acting, the finest essay about actors I know. “They are the only honest hypocrites. Their life is a voluntary dream; a studied madness. The height of their ambition is to be beside themselves. To-day kings, to-morrow beggars, it is only when they are themselves, that they are nothing.”

There’s a canyon, obviously, between Hazlitt and an overrated French middlebrow indulging herself in the baleful belief that she possesses an original mind. Here’s an actress playing an actress in A Spanish Play, musing about the mystery of her artistic “process”:

“I’m rehearsing a Spanish play, a family comedy, in which I play an actress. It’s odd playing an actress. I always feel I have to signal that she’s an actress, the director says, you’re enough, just be yourself, but what is that, myself? What is myself—the actress?”

That’s why you don’t want to be around actresses when they’re discussing their process. It’s just windy posturing. If you actually met an actress like that, you’d run a mile, or marry her. “What is myself—the actress?” The narcissistic question sounds like a bad translation of something. (David Ives translated Ms. Reza’s play from the French.) I might as well ask, “What is myself—the critic?” (And if I don’t know—who does?) Then again, listen to this nonsense from another of Ms. Reza’s actors as he steps out of his role to share his mighty thoughts with us:

“[A]n actor’s job is to annihilate the writer, that’s right, and an actor who doesn’t want to annihilate the writer isn’t worth crap, the actor who capitulates, the actor who doesn’t want to somehow put a boot up the ass of all your snugly fitted phraseology is fucked.”

No Hazlitt he! “Made up of mimic laughter and tears,” the masterly Hazlitt continued in his essay, “passing from the extremes of joy or woe at the prompter’s call, they wear the livery of other men’s fortunes; their very thoughts are not their own. They are, as it were, train-bearers in the pageant of life, and hold a glass up to humanity, frailer than itself. We see ourselves at second-hand in them; they show us all that we are, all that we wish to be, and all that we dread to be. The stage is an epitome, a bettered likeness of the world, with the dull part left out.”

Ms. Reza makes a specialty of leaving the dull parts in. Her actors think only shallow thoughts, indulging in actorly talk like the fatuous, “Words are the parenthesis of silence.”

It would work just the same the other way round: “Silence is the parenthesis of words.”

Either way, Ms. Reza writes awfully long parentheses. Take the willfully windy speeches of her middle-aged character named Fernan, a real-estate manager who finds his dull job riveting. Fernan makes you have serious philosophical thoughts about what you’re going to eat for dinner after the show. Bear with this short extract—tinged with humorless irony—from his opening remarks, one of his endless speeches filled with intricate sophistries about the management of buildings:

“The common refrain these days—maybe you’ve uttered it yourself, Pilar—the common refrain is: What does a managing agent do? A managing agent does nothing. Either we spend too much time at the office and not enough at the building, or we’re at the building and people say we’re unreachable. You’re not going to fob off a co-op owner with some lowly secretary. And we’re going to be hearing that accusation about ‘unreachability’ more and more often. Why? Let me bold—because our newly multiplying methods of communication are destroying communication. Faxes and e-mails don’t replace letters and phone calls, they add more messages to the pile. So …. ”

Had enough? And so soon? There’s reams more of this wearisome stuff. Fernan’s a big bore, yet he’s played by the excellent Larry Pine with such easeful charm that we almost forgive him. In the Spanish play-within-a-play (or a flat domestic comedy within a dud), Fernan is in love with the older Pilar (Ms. Caldwell), who has two daughters, both of them actresses. One actress playing an actress is understandable. Two? Very careless.

Within the Spanish play is a Bulgarian play. Don’t ask. As far as I can tell, it’s about an actor rehearsing a bad Bulgarian melodrama with his actress-wife. The playlet concerns a mostly hysterical, wimpy piano student (the amusing Tony Award winner Denis O’Hare, busking like a trouper) and his teacher, Aurelia, played by the supreme Linda Emond. Ms. Emond (of Tony Kushner’s Homebody/Kabul) is the best actress of her generation. She saved Ms. Reza’s last, perilously thin play, Life x 3. Given the thankless task of playing Aurelia, it’s as if Ms. Reza wanted the actress to transcend the role and save it, too. Ms. Emond heroically did just that, but even her magical gifts couldn’t save A Spanish Play.

I’m afraid that director John Turturro’s use of video for the confessional soliloquies only added to the self-consciousness of it all, including the shot of the game Mr. O’Hare on the toilet. Mr. Turturro’s wife, the delightful Katherine Borowitz, played the other actress, Nuria.

To Yasmina Reza we say, with all due respect: Spare us le bullsheet. To the illustrious cast led by Zoe Caldwell, we offer our stunned admiration at the actor’s art that achieves the miraculous and keeps A Spanish Play afloat.