“It’s so subjective, isn’t it?” wrote a friend recently, sending me a glowing review of a play we’d both seen and both failed to glow over. Most of us critics do try to be objective, putting aside, or at least acknowledging, our preconceptions and prejudices when we take that aisle seat. But the eye of the beholder is, in the end, a subjective organ.
In two productions I saw recently, both of them Berkshire-based, I was expecting to behold generously and happily, and in both cases those expectations were blindsided. Accomplice, now playing at Shakespeare & Company, and Clybourne Park, which closes this weekend at Barrington Stage Company, are widely admired plays—the former a much-produced spoof of the mystery-thriller genre, the latter a Tony- and Pulitzer-winning Broadway sensation.
One of the disadvantages of living in the Valley (or an advantage, you might say) is that I don’t get to the big city very much, so when hit shows come around here, I can often experience them fresh and new. In the case of Clybourne Park, I was familiar with the setup but not the payoff. It picks up at the exact moment where A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry’s keystone drama of the fifties, leaves off, with a black family, the Youngers, poised to move into a comfortably bourgeois—and all-white—Chicago neighborhood.
In Bruce Norris’ sequel, the story picks up in the living room of the very house the Youngers are set on buying, and Act One revolves around the neighbors’ opposition to the owners’ intention of selling. Then we fast-forward 50 years to Act Two, when all the fears of white flight have come to pass and the same house, in what is now an all-black neighborhood, is up for sale, this time to a white couple who see the neighborhood as ripe for gentrification.
It’s a pregnant concept, bristling with hot topics around race and class, and the implications of the discussions—okay, arguments—that comprise most of the action are ones our society sorely needs to have. So I was primed to like and admire this play, and just didn’t.
I suspect that some, at least, of what bothered me about Barrington’s production was director Giovanna Sardelli’s apparent conviction that this serious-minded satirical drama wouldn’t appeal unless it was funnier on the stage than on the page. Oh, there are laughs in the script, but playing most of the first act like a period piece—and by that I mean like a fifties sitcom—was neither funny nor helpful. In Act One, most of the seven-member cast could have been channeling an I Love Lucy episode, laying the jokes on with a trowel and playing nearly everything in a state of frenzy.
The exceptions were Remi Sandri, marvelously underplaying the homeowner whose private anguish has prompted the sale, and Lynnette R. Freeman and Andy Lucien as the household’s maid and her husband, both of them black, obliged to be stoic, unwilling bystanders in the racially charged scene. In Act Two, Freeman and Lucien are descendants of the Youngers, and the neighborhood representatives resisting change through invasion. (Sandri comes on in comic relief as an affable, oblivious workman.)
And here’s my other complaint, which I think is mostly down to the play itself. What we’re supposed to be experiencing, I gather, is the painful ironies that surface when the tables of history are turned. But in both situations, I found the black characters more sympathetic than the white people, who were by and large, at least in this staging, parodies of particular types and viewpoints. So for me the play became a rather unsubtle portrait of white privilege rather than the knife-edge moral predicament I had been expecting it to be—and which most of the critics and audiences have apparently found in it.
Scott Barrow photo
Going into Accomplice, too, I was familiar with the premise but not the payoff (though with this show, that’s a necessity). And here too, I was baffled by the director’s approach and the treatment of Act One.
Rupert Holmes’ parody of plays like Sleuth and Deathtrap, with some Agatha Christie isolated-mansion atmosphere for good measure, is built on setting up and then confounding our expectations, and then doing it again, and again. Once more, it’s a pregnant concept, and though it’s worked out so mechanically you can almost hear the gears grinding, it could be quite jolly if done properly. Alas.
I have to wonder what the director, Stephen Rothman, had in mind by pacing the show so methodically. Maybe it was just the night I saw it, but the crackling tempo that’s crucial to making both the suspense and the comedy work just wasn’t there. And the first act….
Okay, I need to give away something I’m probably not supposed to. Early in Act Two we discover that what we’ve just seen in Act One is a rehearsal for a play—called Accomplice, of course. Not a huge surprise, really, as that kind of switcheroo is almost standard in this brand of theatrical satire. Indeed, from the stilted overacting and dreadful English accents in Act One, you could almost guess that’s what’s going on—bad actors plodding through a bad script.
I don’t know why the director decided to have Elizabeth Aspenlieder and Josh Aaron McCabe—both quite capable actors—treat the scene like Irma Vep instead of Noel Coward, but in this context it doesn’t work. It invites a spectator who doesn’t twig to the play-within-the-play gimmick to simply decide it’s a bad play badly played. So maybe I’m doing you a favor by letting you know you shouldn’t think that.
Another performer, Annie Considine, shows up at the end of Act One—for the first surprise, which I won’t reveal—and Jason Asprey joins in for Act Two. Things get livelier in the later going, and I, for one, didn’t guess what was coming in most of the plot’s hairpin turns—even though a big hint of the hiding-in-plain-sight variety is sitting right in the program. But in S&Co’s annual fall tradition of send-ups of whodunits and creepies, I found this one of the least effective.
Enrico Spada photo
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