The Aristocrats: Elective Affinities Offers Tea, Truffles, a Triumphant Zoe Caldwell

Chekov’s <em>Cherry Orchard</em> as comedy, tragedy, farce

Ms. Caldwell. Photo credit: Brigitte Lacombe

The ritual surrounding a performance of Elective Affinities, the David Adjmi play in which the legendary Zoe Caldwell portrays an Upper East Side doyenne receiving you in her palatial Fifth Avenue home and discoursing on the world as she sees it, is so detailed and richly elegant as to render the word “shtick” nearly inapplicable, even gauche. And yet the delight of this experience lies in two things: seeing Ms. Caldwell work in such an intimate setting, and all the shtick. The play itself, really a short monologue, is entertaining but less fulfilling.

Elective Affinities, which opened last week and is set to run only until midmonth, brings small groups of theatergoers, a mere 30 per performance, to a gracious townhouse opposite the Metropolitan Museum. No beep-boop of electronic ticket-scanning here; you are instead greeted by a uniformed attendant, who asks your name and directs you up to the parlor floor, where tea is being served. If you stop to use the WC, you’ll find hand towels embossed with the monogram A.H., for Alice Hauptmann, Mrs. Caldwell’s character.

Upstairs, you wander the nearly floor-through space alongside your fellow theatergoers, admiring the oil portraits of stern-faced white men, the pleasant music of the grand piano by the window and the enormous modern sculpture, sort of a mottled black metal shoe, hulking in the oak-paneled front room. The Earl Grey is excellent; the chocolate truffles better.

Eventually there is a bit of commotion, a ringing phone and some yelling on other floors, and then the butler announces that Mrs. Hauptmann will receive her guests upstairs. You file up the grand staircase, and you find Mrs. Hauptmann—which is to say Ms. Caldwell—waiting on the landing, ready to take your hand, offer a friendly greeting and usher you into her sitting room.

She’ll get to her monologue—the actual play, such as it is—but first there’s more shtick. “Be careful of that cushion,” she warns one guest. “Did your daughter get into Brearley?” she asks another. And, to the group: “Have some chocolates.” Finally, she settles into an armchair, script on a nearby music stand—“I find it best to have my impromptu remarks scripted,” she says, in character—and begins.

Mr. Adjmi’s scripted remarks are, it turns out, witty and cleverly constructed, a seemingly superficial string of upper-class quips under which lurks a slightly more complicated worldview.

Mrs. Hauptmann is the sort of person who says things like “I’ve never been to Africa, but I’ve been to the Guggenheim,” and “People say to me, ‘You’re so rich, you must be spiritually empty.’ But I’ve managed to find spiritual fulfillment in material things.” She also mentions, in passing, her tolerance for torture of suspected terrorists and her dismissal of the idea of universal human rights. She asks: “I mean, does anyone actually believe this to be true? Or do we just pretend to believe it?”

Ms. Caldwell delivers all this expertly, and, thrillingly, from just a few feet away, a rush of well-spoken bonhomie. She brings tremendous charm and a devilish insouciance to her pronouncements, which are meant to comprise an ironic portrait of the fear and hatred that lurk behind seemingly good manners, some Americans’—even some cultured Americans’—easy and ugly dismissal of foreigners as inhuman and unworthy over the past decade. Mostly, as performed, it just looks like Ms. Caldwell having an awful lot of fun. (She is directed by Sarah Benson.)

But just as you start to decipher the layers, and figure out what’s going on in this play beyond that fun, it abruptly ends. A mere half-hour after the monologue begins, the lights fall, and Elective Affinities is over. Ms. Caldwell stands, thanks the audience, and walks out, leaving you to be shown out by the staff, who will present you with a farewell gift: a book marking the 35th anniversary of the Soho Rep (which produced the play along with Piece by Piece Productions and the Rising Phoenix Repertory) and containing the Elective Affinities script, paired with a thank-you note signed “Alice H.”

Take a minute to read the script on the way home. Stripped of all that delightful but distracting shtick, it becomes much more interesting, the play’s nuances more apparent. You’ll be done long before you get to Union Square on the Lexington Avenue local—if, that is, you’re the sort who takes public transportation.

Dianne Wiest, longstanding star of stage and screen, recurring Woody Allen heroine and erstwhile Law & Order District Attorney Nora Lewin, has a fascinating face: round and open, with full cheeks and tiny eyes. Her visage—and her manner—makes her simultaneously regal and pained, in charge but also always anxious. It’s a perfect face for Madame Ranevskaya, the doomed aristocrat at the center of The Cherry Orchard, about to lose her estate and its famous fruit trees.

The Aristocrats: Elective Affinities Offers Tea, Truffles, a Triumphant Zoe Caldwell