The Gift: Theater Review
Kathy Baker, Chris Mulkey, James Van Der Beek, Jaime Ray Newman star as two couples who puzzle through moral values and social scruples when they meet at a vacation resort.
Sadie (Kathy Baker) narrates The Gift – essentially a two-act play without an intermission break – from her posh Los Angeles home, relating events that took place one year apart. An amiably narrow housewife in a stale but loving marriage to stolid yet endearing self-made franchiser Ed (Chris Mulkey), they celebrate their 25th anniversary at a Caribbean resort where they meet essentially their polar opposites, conceptual artist Martin (James Van Der Beek) and his art critic wife, Chloe (Jaime Ray Newman), marking their eighth anniversary, having apparently won the trip in a contest. Indeed, little about Martin and Chloe appears to be convincing, as their behavior and arguments maintain a suspect quality that makes the budding relationship between the couples vaguely sinister and unpersuasively sincere.
One possible inference throughout the first act is that the younger pair is setting up the older for some kind of con, although Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith has a different sort of surprise in store. Indeed, The Gift relies so heavily on a big plot turn at the end of the first act, and another shocking development in the second, that to discuss the substance of either would undermine what pleasures the experience of the play can offer. Suffice to say Martin and Chloe keep revealing both admirable and dismaying qualities that profoundly affect the older couple.
There is no escaping the play’s unconcealed riffs on Who’s Afraid of Viriginia Woolf?, this time with the older couple more ingenuous and acted upon than transgressive. Unlike Albee, Murray-Smith is not out to dissect the marriage relationship but rather to challenge deeply held moral values and social scruples. Indeed, the central dilemma the characters argue in the second act is essentially a Faustian deal turned inside-out, the Mephistophelean artists seeking to bargain their souls to the more virtuous (and incredulous) wealthier couple.
Despite such intriguing elements, The Gift most echoes the recent successes of Yasmina Reza, interpolating her discussions about the nature of art in Art with the conflict of mores in God of Carnage. The character of Ed purveys woodworking machines instead of plumbing supplies but otherwise has an identical backstory as Mike, played by James Gandolfini in New York and Los Angeles. Mulkey’s Ed lacks the edge of menace but plays many more subtle microtones, although the script requires him to undergo a transformation of sensibility that is challenging to make work. As in Reza’s plays, the characters here discuss aesthetic and ethical issues at self-conscious length, saying little profound but revealing dimension of character through argument. Murray-Smith has some of the brightness but little of Reza’s rigor and satiric bite.
The central difficulty is that, despite bright dialogue, the play feels almost entirely constructed backward from its climactic premise, so that nearly every scene feels retroactively purposed toward a predetermined goal. In hindsight, this would account for the edge of unsatisfying contrivance that threads itself throughout the action. Admittedly, it is no longer easy to fashion any moral quandary that can truly shock an audience, and Murray-Smith has managed to grab hold of a rare and original, if rather fabricated, provocation.
Even so, the show benefits from savvy direction that navigates past truly bumpy tonal uncertainties, and as a dividend conjures up, of all unexpected flourishes, a dandy storm at sea. Baker remains a reliably attractive and magnetic central stage presence who commands sufficient sympathy to encourage us to stay along for the somewhat checkered journey. Yet the play, especially considered in retrospect, cannot escape a certain tiresome and unrewarding manipulative impact.
Venue: The Geffen Playhouse (through March 10)
Cast: Kathy Baker, Chris Mulkey, James Van Der Beek, Jaime Ray Newman
Director: Maria Aitken
Playwright: Joanna Murray-Smith
Set Designer: Derek McLane
Lighting Designer: Peter Kaczorowski
Sound Design & Original Music: John Gromada
Costume Designer: Laura Bauer