Not all art is timeless. Art, a French play by Yasmina Reza, was translated into English and won a pack of awards in the late 1990s on both sides of the Atlantic—an Olivier Award, a Molière Award, a Drama Desk Award, a Tony Award—but now it feels a little creaky in its joints and tedious in its personal dramas.
Three middle-aged Parisian friends stumble into a violent argument after one of them (Serge, played by Steve White and his impeccably waxed mustache) buys a 200,000-franc, white-on-white painting. Aesthete Serge is proud of his subtlety of taste. Bitter Marc (Tom Wiseley) despises the "white piece of shit" and Serge's pretentiousness. Insecure and henpecked Yvan (Eric Jordan) pleads for peace and is derided by both for being a spineless little twit. They go around and around, fussing and fuming over each other's taste in art, wine, women, food, and life in general. The whole thing is much ado about nothing, an anemic French riff on Seinfeld humor.
"What I blame him for is his tone of voice," one character whines. "Basically, what upsets me is that you can't laugh with him anymore," another character complains. Marc, who sputters and spews through most of the play (Wiseley, round-faced and dark-haired, looks a little like Oliver Platt), has its most memorable line: "The older I get, the more offensive I hope to become." But the older Art gets, the less offensive—the less everything—it becomes. (And the real-life painter Art is based on, Robert Ryman, has been making white-on-white paintings since 1959—this conversation was old before it even started.)
The thin script isn't helped by its cast, three middle-aged actors who all earned MFAs in theater; have worked around as directors, actors, and crew members; and are now returning to the stage after hiatuses of various durations. They seem like they're having fun with the show, but they have the unmistakable discomfort-in-their-own-skin you see in younger actors and hobbyists—a middling production of a middling script makes for a middling evening.
Art's most enduringly baffling and intriguing quality was its initial critical reception: "This is not some irrelevant fringe production," sang the Guardian a decade ago. "It is a major intervention in the cultural debate of the country by people who are keen to keep the reactionary tides running. It is probably the most sustained attack on modernism yet seen on the British stage, and it represents a stern challenge to the brilliant success story of British contemporary art."
If that was ever true, it isn't anymore. Maybe we can blame 9/11. Maybe we can blame a famine of good new plays in the late 1990s. Maybe we can blame Seinfeld. But in 2010, Art is a piffle: a collective midlife crisis told by three idiots, signifying nothing.
While Art is an empty play that pretends to have substance, The Cider House Rules (adapted from the novel by John Irving) gets it the other way around. It is a play with lead-heavy ballast that floats lightly and pleasantly on the stage.
This story of an orphanage in Maine in the 1920s and '30s branches out in dozens of directions: the sexual austerity and ether addiction of its founder, Dr. Wilbur Larch; the moral ambiguities surrounding orphanages, abortions, and prostitution; the fortune (and misfortune) of a perpetual orphan named Homer Wells; the destructive rage of another perpetual orphan named Melony; the trepidations of small-town living; child abuse; the remoteness of God; Charles Dickens; the little lies we tell ourselves and each other to make life bearable. The list goes on and on.
But The Cider House Rules is an entertainment—a long entertainment with two intermissions, but an entertainment nevertheless—that only briefly visits its darker corners, leaving us to linger there in our minds, if we choose. Seattle actor Peter Crook is masterful as the conflicted Dr. Larch, a man whose first sexual encounter (with a prostitute) leaves him with a case of the clap and a deep ambivalence about human sexuality: Human bodies desperately want babies, he muses, but human minds are endlessly perplexed about the matter. Women have babies they don't want. Parents abuse children they do want. And children just want to be wanted.
Because he lives in such a messy world, Dr. Larch does what he can to give it order and justice—he plays God in his orphanage, offering discreet abortions to women who ask for them and trying to keep his love remote from the orphans so they'll more easily adjust to their new families. But the sweet, innocent Homer Wells (in a devastatingly openhearted performance by Connor Toms) can't seem to find a home: His adoptive families are either wretched, abusive, or doomed (one insanely cheerful outdoorsy couple is killed by a log raft while frolicking in a river), so he makes the orphanage his home. And Dr. Larch makes Wells his assistant—and, reluctantly, his surrogate son. The boy begins delivering babies before he's even attended high school and falls for Melony (the fierce and bruising Terri Weagant), who conflates anger and sexuality. Each character in The Cider House Rules is a ball of conflict, desire, and pain—but keenly human and true. With its 18 actors playing dozens of characters from prostitutes to professors, the play is a series of shocks of recognition.
The Cider House Rules is a homecoming for Book-It Theatre's 20th season. This adaptation, by Peter Parnell, had a reading at Juilliard that led to a production at the Seattle Rep in 1996 and runs at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and the Atlantic Theater Company in New York. It is, alongside A Confederacy of Dunces earlier this season, one of the great achievements of this company that has dedicated itself to adapting novels for the stage—with mixed success—over the years. Book-It will stage the second half of the adaptation this September. I'm looking forward to it.