'Song From Far Away': Theater Review

Song from Far Away Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Jan Versweyveld
Don't bore us, get to the chorus.

Hot director Ivo van Hove teams up with Tony-winning playwright Simon Stephens for this chamber drama about a New York banker shaken by family tragedy.

Belgian-born, Amsterdam-based, globetrotting theater director Ivo van Hove is currently enjoying a sustained run of international success. His stark, stripped-down Young Vic production of Arthur Miller's A View From The Bridge enjoyed a quick West End transfer in February, and heads to Broadway in November. In August, van Hove earned more rave reviews for his Edinburgh staging of Antigone starring Juliette Binoche, which is also headed to New York this month. Anticipation is feverish for Lazarus, his musical collaboration with David Bowie and Enda Walsh, which opens off-Broadway in December, while his starry, Scott Rudin-produced Broadway revival of Miller's The Crucible begins performances in February.

But even superstar directors have their off days. Written by Simon Stephens, the Tony Award-winning adaptor of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and featuring music by San Francisco alt-rock icon Mark Eitzel of American Music Club fame, Song from Far Away is a one-man chamber piece which might have made a decent radio play, but feels undernourished and underwhelming on a stage. Van Hove's return to the Young Vic is a scrappy 80-minute one-act affair which suggests the in-demand director may be spreading himself a little too thinly.

Produced by van Hove's theater company Toneelgroep Amsterdam, Song From Far Away was first staged in the spring at a festival in Sao Paolo, Brazil. Eelco Smits gives an engaging star turn as Willem, a 34-year-old emigre banker living in New York City who is suddenly summoned home to Amsterdam following the shock death of his younger brother Pauli. Structured as a series of letters addressed to Pauli as kind of personal catharsis, Willem's monologue explores grief and loss, but also feelings of detachment from family and roots, sensory impressions from his journey, a casual hook-up in a gay bar, and a fraught meeting with an ex-lover.

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A well-observed modern archetype, Willem is globalized and deracinated, a born-again New Yorker who has cut all ties to his motherland and mother tongue. Arguably alienated by his sexuality and clearly insulated by luxury, he is also something of a snobbish narcissist, impatient with the provincial values of his family, and locked in a permanent cold war with his father. All potentially rich themes which Stephens only glancingly addresses.

Willem's impressionistic observations are sporadically profound, funny and poignant.  But too often they are also random and inconsequential, never mustering the narrative or emotional force to hold our attention for long. Van Hove seems to recognize this problem, and contrives to have Smits strip completely naked for much of his performance.  Respect is due to the star for his unflustered poise, both clothed and unclothed, but full frontal nudity with no clear dramatic purpose pretty soon starts to feel like a cheap stunt.

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Jan Versweyveld's striking set is the other star of the show. A giant rectangular chamber divided unevenly into two rooms, it represent Willem's minimalist Manhattan apartment but also invokes the sterile hotels, airport lounges and liminal non-spaces that feature in his monologue. When Smits stands in the light from the window, fully dressed, he could be a lonely soul from an Edward Hopper tableau. When he strips naked, crumpled and agonized, this cell-like space resembles a Francis Bacon canvas. Flurries of snowfall outside the window bring a pleasing visual poetry.

Though he shares equal billing with Stephens, Eitzel's score is disappointingly flimsy, essentially a fragmentary handful of wispy guitar ballads that waft across the action like smoke. The sole musical epiphany comes when Willem sings the rousing torch song "Go Where The Love Is," effectively performed as a duet with an invisible Eitzel.  But nobody brings their best game to this thin collaborative effort, which leaves behind the disquieting impression that the reigning emperor of European theater is wearing some very skimpy new clothes.

Venue: Young Vic, London (runs through Sept. 19)
Cast: Eelco Smits
Director: Ivo van Hove
Playwright: Simon Stephens
Music: Mark Eitzel

Set designers: Jan Versweyveld, Ramon Huijbrechts
Lighting designer: Jan Versweyveld
Dramaturg: Bart Van den Eynde
Presented by Toneelgroep Amsterdam, Mostra Internacional de Teatro de Sao Paulo, Young Vic