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A CurtainUp Review
Circle Mirror Transformation
By Elyse Sommer
Just a few hours after leaving the lushly staged, large cast Broadway revival of The Royal Family I headed to Playwrights Horizons' intimate Peter Jay Sharp Theater to see Circle Mirror Transformation by Annie Baker, an emerging playwright for whom a production by an established Off-Broadway theater is a still a big deal. Her play is also about the theater, but what a difference!
The set for Baker's play is an exercise room in a small Vermont town's community center. There's a long mirror at one side and one door. The only props are a big Pilates ball and a hoola hoop. Instead of a cast of fifteen, we have a five-member ensemble to portray the teacher and students in an adult education experimental theater course. This being an economy-minded, off-Broadway production, it's up to the audience to imagine additional students (a class like this would probably need at least eight students for a community center to run it).
There's nothing larger than life about any of these characters. They're ordinary people who probably signed on for the six-week program in hopes that it would fill a void in their lives. The only member of the group with definite acting ambitions is Lauren (Tracee Chimo), an oddball teenager who wants to learn to act so that she may get a part in her high school musical. Marty (Deirdre O'Connell), the group leader's only previous drama teaching has been for children. However, she obviously knows her way around the sort of acting exercises that anyone familiar with acting workshops will recognize.
While you might, like Lauren, expect Marty's class to have her students act out at least a few scenes from a play, leave any such expectations at the door. The class is all about those acting exercises which to anyone less familiar with this aspect of the theater will seem like a combination of yoga and group therapy.
Baker has cleverly and amusingly turned these exercises into another example of the theater's transformative power. Exercise by exercise, each person's personal drama is revealed— the group lying on the floor counting to ten, fragmentary stories pieced together interactively, impromptu monologues about themselves or in the guise of one of the other students, etc. These dramas are intensified with breaks for between class interaction.
Luckily for this no-frills little play, the cast couldn't be better. The always vibrant Deirdre O'Connell is terrific as the group leader, as is James (Peter Friedman who was also in Baker's first major Off-Broadway play, Body Awareness) as the husband who is also enrolled in the class and to whom she's no longer happily married. Reed Birney's Schultz and Heidi Shreck's Theresa, the group's star hoola hooper who actually worked as an actress before she moved to Vermont, are totally convincing. The fact that both are scarred veterans of recently ended relationship doesn't bode well for their attraction to each other. Tracee Chimo is a riot and so good that at times she threatens to steal the show.
So far so good. Clever idea. Good acting. David Zinn's set may be bare bones but it's effective.
The problem is that at almost two hours without an intermission, this is a case of stretching a comic conceit beyond its limits. While director Sam Gold is well attuned to the playwright's quirky sensibility, he would have done well to curb her self-indulgently drawn out script. Consequently, the many long silences, and the repeat of the exercise that has the ensemble lie in a circle counting slowly from 1 to 10 tend to become tedious so that while some audience members will find it all endearing and hysterically funny, a few will make an unobtrusive escape around the halfway mark, which is too bad as the last half is the best.
As my colleague Simon Saltzman noted about Body Awareness (review) which was also set in a small Vermont town, Ms. Baker creates diverting characters and her dialogue has the sort of unpretentious honesty that makes us empathetic with the characters. And so, like her last play, Circle Mirror Transformation is not the sort of great play that's likely to become part of the metatheatrical canon like Hamlet or The Royal Family. However, if you can forgive its repetitiousness and slow spots, it may well leave you with a smile — and perhaps bolster your appreciation of the power of theater (even when only a workshop exercise) to have you "hooping " instead of standing still — or as Lauren does in the final exercise, accept that your life can change many times.