Theater Reviews

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Classic Stage Company, New York
Through March 4

"An actor's job is to annihilate the writer."

So says one character in Yasmina Reza's latest theatrical effort, "A Spanish Play." By that logic, one wouldn't blame any of the five cast members for annihilating Reza -- at least figuratively -- for her unfocused, cliche-ridden, run-on dialogue.

Given the talent assembled, the production's lack of virtues is surprising. Aside from Reza (who earned a Tony in 1998 for the sublime "Art"), John Turturro is in the director's chair to offer guidance to his wife, the usually impressive Katherine Borowitz, as well as Tony winners Zoe Caldwell and Denis O'Hare. There's also Linda Emond of Tony Kushner's "Homebody/Kabul" and Larry Pine from David Hare's "Stuff Happens."

So what went wrong? First and foremost, the concept of a play within a play within a play, wherein the actors and their roles start to blur, is less than revelatory. It might have been fun when Luigi Pirandello started playing that game almost a century ago, but the freshness has long worn off.

Perhaps Reza thinks she's put a new spin on the idea by bringing a video camera to the process. Indeed, each time one of the quintet steps out of character and tells the audience that they're actually performing in the titular Spanish play, they speak into a camera and the result is projected on the wall behind them.

OK, but what comes out of such moments? Is insight offered into the acting process? Is one meant to discern how bombastic speeches confirm an actor's egomania? All that's certain is that the device proves a silly gimmick.

The focus of the chief story line -- the play within the play -- concerns a dysfunctional family wherein a meddling mother (Caldwell) bickers with her two grown daughters, one a successful if superficial actress (Borowitz) and the other a talented but overlooked thespian (Emond) married to an alcoholic teacher (O'Hare). There's also the mother's fiance (Pine), who attempts to make sense of the jealousy, hostilities and occasional affection that defines the clan's exchanges. Collectively, it's an updated definition for deja vu.

Neither are Turturro's contributions a saving grace. He's proven time and again that he's a consistently arresting actor. But his experience as a stage director has been scant ("The Love of Don Perlimplin for Belisa in His Garden" and "Cavalleria Rusticana") while attempts at directing on film ("Mac" and "Illuminata") were ambitious failures. It appears he should stick to acting.

As for the cast, Caldwell comes off best, as she's able to produce a few bona fide laughs by completely changing moods within the same sentence. O'Hare also gives a manic verbal workout, though the result may seem familiar to those who witnessed his mannerisms in Broadway's "Take Me Out" and "Assassins." Emond, Pine and Borowitz try hard, too, but for naught.

Sadly, the show's most entertaining facet comes within "Spanish Play's" opening moments: a slide show on the set's bare walls featuring shots of luminaries like Marlon Brando, Vivien Leigh and Bette Davis. In fairness, they probably couldn't have done much with Reza's script either, at least short of annihilating the author.

A SPANISH PLAY
Presented by Classic Stage Company
Credits:
Playwright: Yasmina Reza
Director: John Turturro
Set designer: Riccardo Hernandez
Costume designer: Donna Zakowska
Lighting designer: Christopher Akerlind
Sound designers: Darron L. West, Emily Wright
Cast:
Fernan: Larry Pine
Pilar: Zoe Caldwell
Mariano: Denis O'Hare
Aurelia: Linda Emond
Nuria: Katherine Borowitz
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