Legacy, by Daniel Goldfarb. Directed by Oliver Butler.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
"Forgive my moment of indulgent self-loathing."
Jessica Hecht. Eric Bogosian; photo: T. Charles Erickson
"What a good play," he exclaimed, "but my wife didn't like it." That's the sort of comment overheard in the lobby at the Williamstown Theatre Festival's world premiere production of Daniel Goldfarb's new play Legacy. There are two plays happening on the Nikos stage simultaneously: the fictional look at a famous author's need for personal legacy as well as the play about two women with secrets dealing with a man with secrets and the more they lie about the things they will not speak of the more convoluted their relationships become. Both stories are fascinating. For a man to want to leave behind something he never wanted to create is a personal conflict piece that opens the mind and heart and enlightens an audience. For secrets among intimates to charge friendships with confusions and imitations and all sorts of shenanigans is quite another thing altogether making an audience nervous and upset and hopeful in a way. The author of the current offering in Williamstown has managed to combine both of these concepts into a single piece and the time literally flies by and, according to the man in the lobby, polarizes people as they concentrate on one or the other tale.
They really are not separable. One is the cake, the main thrust, the driver of the piece. The other is really the layers and the icing and the stuffing. A famous author, Neil Abrams, has received poor notices for his latest novel and he feels that he has nothing worthwhile to leave behind him. His younger wife, resigned after seventeen years of marriage to not having a child, is asked to bear one as Neil's actual, physical legacy. That's the plot. No spoilers there. However when a surrogate becomes necessary the plot thickens and the second woman takes a more prominent position in the story, a position complicated by other positions she has taken. Outspoken, bright, and thorough her relationships with the husband and wife make for merry and mischievous and maudlin complications.
Eric Bogosian plays Neil. The man is, himself, a famous author and so he brings a personal layer of experience to the role. With him Neil is an awkward man, unable to say what he feels without a keyboard to express it through. He is a writer and he lives in a world of his own making. He has created a situation with his wife that he now needs to revise and rewrite but it is difficult for him to do this without her cooperation. Bogosian is very straightforward in his characterization. He never fusses; he pulls no punches; he is direct and forward and on the rare occasion when he hesitates, he only does so for the instant it takes him to recompose himself and his situation. Bogosian does a nice job with this, but he is not an actor who makes the audience sympathize or commiserate with him and his problems.
As his surrogate, a woman named Heart (named for her father's heart attack prior to her birth), is played with a similar directness by Halley Feiffer. In for a penny, in for a pound is her seeming credo, for Heart takes on her various roles in the Abrams' lives with enthusiasm and gusto until the moment when her own decisions, made in an effort to please Neil, bring her far too low in her own estimation. Feiffer has a brilliant moment at that point in the play, heart-stopping, almost Heart stopping actually. This is a very memorable performance and probably the cause of that audience member's wife's dislike for the play.
The middle-man in the play, Dr. Goodman, a pediatrician, is played with unrelenting poor bedside manner by Justin Long. This is a funny actor who can make even the worst situations into a soft chuckle. He has managed here to develop the perfect medical attitude to make even a hard-edged constant patient cringe. It's a grand performance by a very talented young man.
The wife, Suzanne, an intellectual whose work equals her husband's work in importance, is played by Jessica Hecht. This is an actress for whom subtlety and nuance are a religion of their own. She keeps them with her always and uses them to fabulous effect. Her voice can develop a very slight quiver - and it does now and then. Her face can effectively utilize a slight twitch, which it also does occasionally. Her hands are expressive when let loose or attached to her hips. Her hair and her eyes move in tandem or separate as needed heading in two different directions. Her performance as Suzanne is touching in the extreme. When this character lies she does it with a ration book telling her how much she has and how much she needs. She uses common sense to determine how far she can go. Hecht is like a miracle worker, as usual, giving everything she has to her onstage relationships and leading us through the turns and twists of the plot with a never-failing invisible map. This is such a wonderful role for her and she delivers on every promise.
Oliver Butler has forged a major hit out of a complicated little drama with very funny lines darting through it. This is a play that should be done often but only with people of this calibre in it. This director has used his set, designed by Dane Laffrey as a real place. People crawl over furniture, move things, redecorate a space now and then. There is a reality to the way Suzanne and Neil and Heart use the places they use. It is wonderful work.
Jessica Pabst has provided perfect costumes for these people, defining and clarifying them through their clothing. Justin Townsend's lighting design works so well that we do forget we're in a theater and believe in the places the play takes us. Dan Kluger, sound designer, utilizes the Surprise Symphony of Haydn is wonderful ways bringing us back to the reality of theater.
I loved Goldfarb's last show at the Williamstown Theatre Festival - the musical "Party Come Here." I was pretty much alone in my high expectations for it. I pray I am not alone this time. "Legacy" is a very good play and should enjoy a long life on many stages. We are so lucky to have this first opportunity to see it and appreciate it.
Justin Long, Hecht, Bogosian; photo: T. Charles Erickson
Hecht, Halley Feiffer; photo: T. Charles Erickson
Legacy plays through July 12 ONLY at the Nikos Theatre in the '62 Center for Theatre and Dance located on the Williams College campus, at 1000 Main Street, Williamstown, MA. For information and tickets contact the box office at 413-597-3400 or go on line at wtfestival.org.