Audrey Skirball-Kenis Theatre, Westwood
Through Nov. 18
Jane Anderson’s new play, commissioned by the Geffen Playhouse, explores life through the interaction of two middle-age couples struggling to resolve the consequences of death, armed only with the embers of their love.
For a Left Coast cultural anthropologist (Dennis Boutsikaris) and his artist wife (Laurie Metcalf), whose future has literally flamed out in a catastrophic fire at their Northern California retreat, terminal cancer is the issue. For an Ohio housewife (JoBeth Williams) and her emotionally paralyzed husband (Scott Bakula), proverbial born-again clucks from the Midwest, it is the terrible kidnapping and murder of their teenage daughter.
Although the writing is highly professional, it also is somehow cold and even unfeeling, reflected in the writer’s resorting to turning the two couples, particularly the Midwesterners, into unattractive stereotypes. This has the advantage of opening them up for easy jokes, but it makes the audience’s sympathy uncertain.
One performance, however, finds a great measure of humanity behind Anderson’s flat writing, and that is Williams as a mother caught between loyalty to herself and her husband, the impossible strictures of religious doctrine as well as her own needs for love and connection. With every word, Williams breathes life into her character and by extension makes the other three characters seem authentic and convincing. It is a remarkable performance in which Williams’ own physical beauty flashes occasionally, radiant and illuminating of her suffering and grief.
Almost at the same level is Boutsikaris, who manages to capture the integrity of his dying body and articulate the eloquence of his unwavering philosophy even as he approaches a crucial epiphany to which, though it is inadequately prepared for (related to the unexpected complexity referred to above), he gives great meaning.
Although Boutsikaris’ part is too often relegated to the kind of clever repartee you expect from philosopher kings — not to mention jokes and shtick about the medical marijuana he uses to ease his pain — in a final five-minute speech to his students, he almost gives the play a coherent recapitulation that it otherwise might lack.
By contrast, Bakula and Metcalf are less successful at finding convincing focus in their characters, Bakula by sticking too woodenly to the husband’s deeply repressed religious beliefs (which Anderson has written as if they came from a recruiting pamphlet), Metcalf by dancing between opposite poles of the despair she also represses, though in an entirely different way. At times, her mercurial, acerbic and amusing flitting toward and away from the flames of destruction are compelling; at other times, she seems to be just playing what is admittedly a tough role, both in its dramatic essence and its function in the story.
The production’s simple but highly creative set and somber colors, as well as the intimate confines of the Audrey Skirball-Kenis Theatre, embrace the performers and the play with almost tangible affection.
On reflection, it is no surprise that the first play commissioned by the Geffen is one in which deep feelings and significant matters predominate. Whether there is more humanity in the play than is shown in this world premiere production remains to be seen.
THE QUALITY OF LIFE
Presented by Geffen Playhouse
Playwright-director: Jane Anderson
Set designer: Francois-Pierre Couture
Costume designer: Christina Haatinen Jones
Lighting designer: Jason H. Thompson
Sound designer: Karl Lundeberg
Casting: Phyllis Schuringa
Dramaturg: Amy Levinson Millan
Production stage manager: Anna Belle Gilbert
Bill: Scott Bakula
Dinah: JoBeth Williams
Neil: Dennis Boutsikaris
Jeanette: Laurie Metcalf