The Blue Deepby Lucy Boyle. Directed by Bob Balaban.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
The company; photo: T. Charles Erickson
Blythe Danner as Grace; photo: T. Charles Erickson
"Training for some Jacques Cousteau S&M thing?"
(This review for limited, local exposure only!)
Grace and Lila, mother and daughter, don’t deal easily with one another. At issue is the dead husband/father figure who always stood between them. Now his substance is ashes in an awkward container while his soul is lost in some limbo that neither woman can reach. Lucy Boyle’s play, The Blue Deep, having its world premiere performances on the Nikos Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Williamstown, MA, is a tenuous piece, slight and wordy, taking too much time to reach its ultimate point, that a mother and a daughter can support one another in their relationships even if their own interactions are sloppy and difficult. Luckily for the playwright there are dynamic women in these roles and a true theater craftsman at the helm holding them all together.
Bob Balaban, film and stage actor, has directed as taut and tight a production as possible with this hopefully still developing material. Recurring gags for Grace define her better than almost anything else Grace does in the play. Her phone calls with a neighbor are a cute device, but take her nowhere and so leave us with less a sense of her than we might have had with a stronger on-stage relationship with her best friends, Charlie and Roberta. Lila leaves the yard of her mother’s home so many times in so many huffs that it almost becomes a leitmotiv for this character, but it really doesn’t engage us or tell us much about her.
If it wasn’t for Heather Lind as Lila and Blythe Danner as Grace we might feel cheated by the writing here. Both of these actresses have a knack for filling in with silences, looks, gestures and - in Danner’s case - the "Flying by Foy" effects to help carry their characters into our minds. It’s a lot of work, replacing facts and reinforcing idioms, for the two actresses to have to bring onto the stage when a good solid rewrite including hard facts and the occasional reprimand (other than the one in the play now about bringing glass to a poolside) would suffice. Hopefully as this first production draws to its conclusion, the author will begin to find more things in her play to write about and to write to than she did originally, for there are some fine ideas here.
Jack Gilpin plays old friend Charlie and he gives a wonderful performance of a mostly disengaged chum who can offer little help outside of the contents of a nickel bag. He has a slight charm, does Charlie, and Gilpin has the actor’s experience to play charm on the slight-side and make it appealing and healthy.
As his wife we have Becky Ann Baker who certainly has a ham-salad of a role and the opportunity to exploit those two ingredients as an actress. Roberta is beyond the whimsical. She is, as Cole Porter or Ogden Nash might have put it, "whamsical." Her every comment sounds with a slap and yet the sound supercedes any possible pain so the final effect is simply engaging. She manages to make Roberta into the kind of friend you look forward to and when she’s with you makes you wish for a hasty departure. She’s a babbler, which Baker makes clear instantly, and she is a romantic which gets her little in her relationships. Baker’s work here is just fine in a second level but dominant character role.
Finn Wittrock does some very nice things with his role of a gardener who comes to remove a fallen tree and stays to almost fall in love with Lila. He presents Jamie to us as an educated simpleton. The conflicts in the character make the concept of a romance here almost too hard to believe but the actor makes it an understandable disbelief.
Heather Lind’s Lila is a study in contrasts. Her first entrance would have us believe that this is a rude and insulting human being, but before the first scene is over Lila is merely antagonistic with no real cause and no real impact. Or perhaps her mother’s attitude about her arrival is enough to incite her actions but if so than things happen out of logical order in this quick and sudden scene. As she progresses she becomes more likeable but Lind has to play the character as written and this character is written as a mass of attitudes, contrasts, a blend of the seven deadly sins and the physical attributes of a nine-year-old boy. How Lind holds her character together is little short of miraculous.
Danner is a beauty and her character is a beauty and the combination is just right. Here is the most comprehendible character in the play presented by the most accomplished actor in the company. Her back-and-forth attitudes about everyone on stage and on the phone would be hard to take from a lesser performer, but Danner can turn her character’s world on its ear and back to an upright position in seconds and have us believe it. Still the author gives her so much to do that we never get close to Grace in spite of the open vulnerability this actress presents to us within the facade of complete control and overwhelming purpose. Her second act transition from goddess to invalid is breath-taking.
Heather Lind and Finn Wittrock; photo: T. Charles Erickson
Balaban has kept a close control on his company and the result is simply the best possible presentation of a play that is still something of a sketch, an idea not fully realized. No audience should sit rapt for two hours watching the feet of Blythe Danner and hoping there won’t be an accident on stage.
The fascinating set has been designed by Andrew Boyce and Takeshi Kata. Mimi O’Donnell has done a very nice job with the costumes, helping to create reliable characters from the merest clues in the script and Matthew Richards has given us lighting that truly translates into time of day and weather. John Gromada’s sound design is sometimes overwhelming and sometimes just great.
"Flying by Foy." Remember Mary Martin as Peter Pan. Blythe Danner could play Peter Pan, but a more mature Peter; she could. The flying here represents the workout in the onstage pool. . .or does it? Does Grace find more than health in her aquarobic pilates? Does she somehow ascend to heaven in search of that lost husband? Is this gratuitous? Is it the playwright’s intention or the director’s? "Flying by Foy" provides more questions than answers, but it does make you wonder if there’s a new Peter Pan play somewhere out there about Peter, older, playable by Blythe Danner. I’d go see that in a second.
The Blue Deep plays on the Nikos Stage at the ‘62 Center for Theatre and Dance at 1000 Main Street, Williamstown MA through July 8. For information and tickets call the Williamstown Theatre Festival box office at 413-597-3400.