EmptyBooth Theatre, New York
Through Aug. 25
Recalling a long-ago time when best-selling books were routinely translated to the Broadway stage, "The Year of Magical Thinking" stars Vanessa Redgrave in Joan Didion's adaptation of her own best-selling memoir about the sudden death of her husband, screenwriter John Gregory Dunne. Directed by dramatist David Hare, the production is at times deeply moving and offers a typically superb performance by its star even while demonstrating that the material isn't necessarily theatrical. Hit status seems assured, however, because the show already has racked up a large advance and has become one of the must-see dramatic events of the season.
What made Didion's book, a National Book Award winner, so powerful was the way she was able to analyze in objective, intellectual fashion the sheer overwhelming emotions that she experienced after her husband of about 40 years suddenly dropped dead one night in the couple's apartment. Describing the events and their aftermath, Redgrave as Didion chillingly and matter-of-factly makes clear their universality: "It will happen to you," she warns. "The details will be different, but it will happen to you."
Whether discussing the intricate details of her husband's emergency-room treatment or talking about how she was unable to give away his shoes because, well, what would he wear when he came back, Didion provides an alternately dispassionate and heart-wrenching testimony that is all the more moving for its occasional absurdity. The apt title of the piece stems from an anthropological term about primitive cultures who think that they can alter reality though behavior.
The theatrical version differs in one important aspect from the book in that it also movingly deals with the death of Didion and Dunne's daughter Quintana, an event that occurred subsequent to its writing.
The author has provided a skillful condensation of the original, though its essay-like nature is not particularly suited for the stage. But this drawback is easily compensated for by Redgrave, whose performance is all the more moving for its restraint. Only occasionally displaying the anguish underlying the tale, the actress superbly conveys the author's combination of steely intelligence, sardonic humor and intensity.
Hare wisely keeps the staging largely unadorned, with the major exception being the occasional dramatic dropping of massive curtains behind the performer to accentuate certain moments.
THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING
Presented by Scott Rudin, Roger Berlind, Debra Black, Daryl Roth and the Shubert Organization
Playwright: Joan Didion
Director: David Hare
Set designer: Bob Crowley
Costume designer: Ann Roth
Lighting designer: Jean Kalman
Sound designer: Paul Arditti
Joan Didion: Vanessa Redgrave