Play’s central character makes questionable choices
Just the name of the actress, Stockard Channing, evokes images of a socialite, an elitist, in various forms. It’s an image she has created in numerous plays and films, like Six Degrees of Separation, the television series “The Good Wife,” and even in musicals such as Pal Joey. That she first made her mark as a gum-chewing teenager in the movie, Grease, is entirely consistent with her image.
In her current role, as Kristin Miller in Alexi Kaye Campbell’s drama, Apologia, Channing plays an American art historian, and noted author living in England. A youthful rebel of the ‘60s, Kristin came to Europe to escape the destiny of suburban life in America, which represented everything she found empty and fruitless.
In fact, much of the conversation in the play’s first act evokes the clichés of the professional woman. Her references to the “outmoded patriarchal propaganda,” and “that damned Connecticut corset,” are spoken directly to the audience. Her behavior appears pretentious and self-protective.
As the play opens, her son Peter (Hugh Dancy) and his soon-to-be fiancé, Trudi (Talene Monahon) have arrived at Kristin’s cottage in the English countryside to fete her birthday. It’s 2009, and the play’s central conflict, Kristin’s ability to be a mother versus her commitment to her intellectual life, is quickly and openly evoked.
As written, the play is a series of debates about the morality of her choices. “An old commie,” she in turn, is put off by Trudi’s Christianity — it’s not the sort of thing that suits Kristin’s belief system. And at the same time, she’s snide about Peter’s career in finance, his penchant for being a capitalist.
For the most part, the events appear self-evident, until the arrival of her younger son, Simon. It’s an amazing double act by Hugh Dancy, who portrays both the dry, and banal Peter, and his deeply-troubled brother. Simon, the character who suffers, is the central symbol of Kristin’s quest, and the two are inextricably bound to each other’s fate.
On the lighter side, John Tillinger, the well-known theater director, makes a welcome return to the stage, toting Simon’s girlfriend, played by the elegant Megalyn Echikunwoke, on his arm. As Kristin’s gay friend and ally, he defends her ambition, telling Peter, “She was doing it all for you, and anyone else who has a big house in the suburbs.”
Oddly, Campbell’s drama, speaking in the lingua franca of modern realism, feels like a work of much earlier vintage. Its fidelity to the works of Ibsen, as well as to classical tragedy, is visibly at work. Director Daniel Aukin allows those elements to breathe beneath the surface of the dark drawing room — Kristin’s kitchen of dark wood, crammed with books, possesses a broken oven in which nothing can bake. While Dane Laffrey’s set reflects her character, Bradly King’s lighting of Kristin tending to the shattered glass in Simon’s arms, feels ghostlike.
Stockard Channing is brilliant — it’s not a footnote to her great career, but rather a coming-to-terms with an image that still requires our awareness.
Viewing the macrocosm from the microcosm is the raison d’etre of Off Broadway, because seeing the big picture in a small space causes us to see things from a different perspective. In fact, that is the beauty of the Keen Theater’s new musical, Ordinary Days, Off Broadway on Theatre Row.
While the show’s creator, Adam Gwon, is attributed with writing the music and lyrics, the show makes no claims to having a librettist. Be that as it may, it definitely has a narrative — four narratives in fact, each belonging to one of the four characters who, through this 90-minute musical meet, collide, converge, and discover the other.
That the characters appear so utterly quotidian on one hand and so familiar on the other, speaks to the play’s immeasurable charm. As the musical’s narrator and guide, Warren (Kyle Sherman) is an aspiring artist, and incurable optimist. And Deb (Sarah Lynn Marion), the cynical woman who ignores his efforts to connect, is all tied up in graduate school, which doesn’t feel so fulfilling after all. Jason (Marc DelaCruz), and Claire (Whitney Bashor), an older, thirtysomething couple, delve sensitively into the nuances of relationship.
The Frank Gehry-inspired set designed by Steven Kemp coops the style of the ice cube block buildings. Large geometric cubes designating the impenetrable skyscrapers of urban life yield to narrow canals, through which the actors move.
In this sung through musical, the voices tell the story, and the four actors in this production make that an especially affecting experience simply because they sound truthful and honest. While I’m partial to the broad open sound of Sarah Lynn Marion’s Deb, Whitney Bashor, as the woman who experiences both the loss of love and its return, is beautiful to listen to. And Marc DelaCruz as the man who pursues her brings a dynamic sensibility to his story and his songs.
Most interesting, however, is Kyle Sherman, the young man who stirs the tale into action sings so simply that it’s like he’s just talking to his own rhythm.
It’s an understated, beautifully sung, and moving story about connecting with another person.