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A CurtainUp Review

Rodney's Wife

Her name -- was Fay. But for as long as I can remember, she was known -- as Rodney's wife.
--- The Woman
Jessica Chastain, Haviland Morris, David Strathairn & Maryann Plunkett
David Strathairn & Maryann Plunkett (Photo: Joan Marcus )
Little has changed about Rodney's Wife since I saw its premiere run at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. That's both good and bad news.

The good news is that the play has transferred to Playwrights Horizons with the main players once again on board. David Straithairn, has further deepened his finely shaded portrayal of Rodney, a middle-aged actor whose personal life is as much on a downhill slide as his career. Like Straithairn, Haviland Morris as Rodney's wife Fay, Maryann Plunkett as his sister Eva again prove themselves to be attuned to Mr. Nelson's writing style, with its understated rhythm and dialogue that leaves much unsaid. John Rothman as Rodney's manager is fine but his character remains secondary. Jessica Chastain is a solid addition as Rodney's daughter Lee. Jesse Pennington, who worked with Mr. Nelson in Franny's Way, is fine as her boyfriend Ted but, like Rothman, doesn't have much to work with.

The not so good news is that the play seems deeper than it actually is and that Mr. Nelson's direction is so measured that it borders on lassitude. There's nothing wrong in omitting an intermission, but this would have worked better if at least ten minutes had been cut to conform to the eighty or ninety-minute running time that is common for intermission-free productions.

As in The Dead Nelson once again indulges his penchant for positioning characters with their backs to the audience. This can be effective for creating a sense that we're watching real people in a room rather than actors posed in a theatrical setting, but it is annoying when overdone -- especially since Nelson also tends to direct his actors to speak low so that people not close to the stage have to strain to hear everything that's said. This unwillingness to sacrifice a word, a pause or a planned stage direction undermines Nelson's often sensitive direction.

These cavils, notwithstanding, the play has many of qualities that have made me a Nelson fan. Most notably, there's the almost dreamy overall aura and the way he manages to bring shadowy truths about family relationships into focus. And even though this is a play about a movie actor, it is essentially a family drama, with losses and desires examined from the familial as well as career perspective. As in other Nelson plays the quiet drama is heightened by the unsettling effect living far from home can have on one's emotions.

Like Franny's Way and Madame Melville, this is a memory play, with a scene-setting introductory monologue and a closing monologue that tells us as much about what happened as the playwright feels we need to know. The narrator here is Haviland Morris. She delivers the prologue, then melds into the flashback as the title character, and returns to her introductory role at the end. Having her play narrator and Rodney's wife may sound confusing but isn't.

The setting is Rome in 1962, where Rodney, for lack of more prestigious roles, has come to shore up his bank account to star in a "spaghetti western" (the kind that made Clint Eastwood and Russell Crowe famous as well as rich). Though Rodney and Fay are childless (which turns out to be an issue), they are not alone in the villa they've rented for the shoot's duration. There's his sister Eva, a sisterly stand-in for a possessive mother-in-law, whose beloved husband and Rodney's erstwhile manager died recently. There's also Lee, the daughter from his first marriage (which also ended with the death of a much loved spouse).

The complex underpinnings in this trio's surface civility comes almost instantly undone during in the course of a dinner party and its immediate aftermath. The constant rain sets the tone for the dark revelations to come, the most explosive being what should be a celebratory event: Lee's announcement that she and Ted (Pennington), an American writer she's been seeing are engaged. Rodney and Eva are delighted, but Fay (supposedly much to our mystification) is not. As Eva's marriage was obviously less idyllic than she'd have us believe, the real reason for the strain between Fay and Lee, and in turn between Fay and Rodney, is way too transparent. True, the suspense is not intended to be about what's been going on but why it happened and how these people are going to deal with the truth. But ultimately the play's greatest weakness is that the characters simply aren't terribly interesting.

Concurrent with Lee's engagement to stoke the familial embers, Rodney's new manager Henry (Rothman) brings news that an actor on a major film underway in Hollywood is being fired and that Rodney has a good shot at the part that could shore up his career. Taking the role means leaving Rome immediately. Thus opportunity knocks but it's a knock that forces Rodney to compromise his ethics. While we never see anyone from the Italian film company who might lose their jobs as a result of Rodney's abrupt departure, Rodney's news brings the troubling undercurrents between Fay and Lee and Fay and Rodney to an agonizing boil. Eva's acting as intermediary, makes us realize that for all the secrets that have been brought into the open, if this family is to remain together, plenty of emotional dust motes will still be swept under the carpet -- like Rodney's needy macho which denied Fay her career and allows wife or sister to draw his bath (really!), and Eva's suspiciously unwholesome devotion.

In transporting the living-dining room and staircase set from the small Williamstown theater, Susan Hilferty has achieved the same intimacy on the much wider Playwrights Horizon stage closing off a portion at each side. The actors are enlisted to handle the scene to scene prop changes, which they do with as little fuss as possible though this device is never as seamless and non-distracting as it should be. David Weiner's lighting underscores the changeable atmosphere from festive dinner to the despair wrought by painful disclosuress.

By the time the narrator comes back to fill us in on the long-term effects of that decisive night, the actors, especially Straithairn, have almost persuaded us that these are people worth caring about. But while the performances hold our attention, the playwright has shortchanged the performers by writing characters who, no matter how well acted, dont make a lasting impression.

Franny's Way
Good Night Children Everywhere/
The General From America
James Joyce's The Dead
Madame Melville (New York). . . Madame Melville (London )
Misha's Party
My Life With Albertine

Written and directed by Richard Nelson.
Cast: Jessica Chastain (Lee), Haviland Morris (Fay), Jesse Pennington ((Ted), Maryann Plunkett (Lee), Henry John Rothman (Henry), David Strathairn (Rodney)
Sets and Costumes: Susan Hilferty
Lights: David Weiner
Sound: Scott Lehrer
Running time: 1 hour and 40 minutes without an intermission
Playwrights Horizons' Mainstage Theater, 416 West 42nd Street 212/ 279-4200 or
11/12/04 to 12/19/04; opening 12/01/04.
Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 PM, Saturdays at 2:30 & 8 PM and Sundays at 2:30 & 7:30 PM.
Tickets are $55. Student Rush Tickets will be available for $15 (cash only, day of performance, subject to availability, valid ID required).
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 11/28 press performance performance
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