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A CurtainUp DC Review
The Habit of Art

have the habit of art. "Are you writing?"— Carpenter
"Am I dead? I work. I have the habit of art"— Auden
The Habit of Art.
Ted van Griethuysen and Paxton
(Photo: Scott Suchman)
Alan Bennett, in his play The Habit of Art, currently having its U. S. premiere at Studio Theatre, explains his title three times. The reference above comes at the top of the first act. It is the poet W. H. Auden's answer to a biographer's question about what he, Auden, is doing. In the second reference, Auden says to his old friend composer Benjamin Britten, "I have the habit of art. I write poems of a cozy domesticity trying to catch the few charred emotions that scuttle across my linefeed landscape. But I have to work, or else who am I? What I fear is that on Judgment Day one’s punishment will be to hear God reciting by heart the poems I would have written had my life been good." The third quote comes at the end of the play, as Kay, stage manager of the play-within-The Habit of Art, says, of London's National Theatre, ". . . what’s knocked the corners off the place, taken the shine off it and made it dingy and unintimidating—are plays. Plays plump, plays paltry, plays preposterous, plays purgatorial, plays radiant, plays rotten—but plays persistent. Plays, plays, plays. The habit of art."

Habit is set in a rehearsal room of the National where many of Bennet's plays, such as History Boys have premiered. The play being rehearsed is Caliban's Day. It is a fictional reunion of poet W. H. Auden and composer Benjamin Britten, two great intellectual giants of the 20th-century. Their conversation ranges from death to sex, creativity, rent boys and homosexuality. And, as always with Bennett's work, the wit is profound and deeply gratifying.

Director David Muse keeps a firm grip on his almost perfect cast. (Some of the walk-ons are a bit wooden.) By not overplaying the jokes, he lets Bennett's wit and those who say his lines dominate. The leads, Ted van Griethuysen as Fitz/ W. H. Auden and Paxton Whitehead as Henry/ Benjamin Britten in Caliban's Day, are well-matched foils for one another, two old pros who are a joy to watch. Their pairing is masterful.

Margaret Daly is Kay, the ever-patient stage manager who seems to be just on the brink of losing her mind as she coaxes childlike actors to follow the script as written rather than ad lib a script they would prefer. Particularly adept at embellishing his part is Cameron Folmar as Donald/ Humphrey Carpenter, a journalist who will ultimately write biographies of both Auden and Britten. Not wanting to be in the background, he opens the second act by vamping in a blue velvet gown, blonde wig and too much lipstick, while tooting a horn. Not a subtle metaphor but hilarious just the same.

A word about the set. Pretty can be easy; so can elegant, stark or architectural. But it takes a really clever scenic designer to create an environment so repulsive only an intellectual, oblivious to the basics of hygiene and order, could bear to live in. Congratulations to James Noone who made such a place, the poet's study, so real.

Is The Habit of Art autobiographical? Probably. In this superb production which has been extended through October 30, the actor (Wynn Harmon) who plays the author of the play-within-the-play, bears a strong resemblance-- white hair cropped short, round eyeglasses -- to Alan Bennett.

For Lizzie Loveridge's review of the London production directed by Nicholas Hytner go here.

The Habit of Art By Alan Bennett
Directed by David Muse
Lighting by Nancy Schertler
Costumes by Alex Jaeger
Dialect Coach, Nancy Krebs

Cast: Margaret Daly (Kay/stage manager); Matt Dewberry (George/Assistant Stage Manager); Cameron Folmar (Donald/Humphrey Carpenter); Ted van Griethuysen (Fitz/W. H. Auden); Paxton Whitehead (Henry/Benjamin Britten); Randy Harrison (Tim/Stuart); Alfredo Pulupa (Tom/rehearsal pianist); Sam O'Brien (Charlie/Boy); Lynn Sharp Spears (Joan/Boy's chaperone); Wynn Harmon (Neil/the playwright); Will Cooke (Ralph/a dresser); Leo Erickson (an actor).

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes, one intermission.

Studio Theatre, 1501 14th Street, NW; Washington, DC; 202-332-3300; Dates: September 7 to October 30, 2011.
Review by Susan Davidson based on October 5, 2011 performance.

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