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Glenda Frank

"A Spanish Play"


"A Spanish Play" by Yasmina Reza. Translated by David Ives.
CSC (Classic Stage Company) 136 E. 13 St., NYC
Tickets: (866) 811-4111, (212) 352-3101 or www.classicstage.org
Performances Tuesday –Sat 8 PM, Saturday at 2, Sunday at 3 PM
Jan. 10 – March 4, 2007
Tickets $70 - $75.

Reviewed by Glenda Frank

For a decade, teams of exceptional American actors have been assembled to bring French-writer Yasmina Reza's New York audiences. "Art" (1998), starring Alan Alda, Victor Garber and Alfred Molina, received Tony and Drama Desk awards for best play and ran for almost two years. John Turturro, Linda Emond, Helen Hunt and Brent Spiner starred in "Life (x) 3." "A Spanish Play," now at CSC, is another role call of talent. Under the adept direction of John Turturro, Zoe Caldwell (four-time Tony winner). Katherine Borowitz ("Illuminata"), Linda Emond ("Homebody/Kabul"), Denis O'Hare ("Take Me Out"), and Larry Pine ("Stuff Happens") realize some of their finest performances.

Excellent performances are crucial because Yasmina Reza writes plays of ideas, like Bernard Shaw, but unlike Shaw, who can also be talky and philosophical, she provides little by way of plot, conflict resolution, or even sets to distract and entertain the audience. The play itself is at times confusing with its multiple threads and questions about integrity. It is filled with Pirandellian reality shifts. But in the end – 90+ minutes with no intermission -- I found myself deeply moved, unwilling to let the play go, haunted by it.

Reza's theme is happiness. Not contentment, compromise, enlightenment or pipe dreams, but the moments when we feel whole and lucky to be alive. It's an almost impossible theme to dramatize without becoming sentimental, which makes her triumph all the more surprising. She takes us deep into the heart of a dysfunctional family and permits each character to come alive. We feel – maybe even identify with – their jealousy, frustrations, needs, and memories.

The core play is a family gathering of two generations: Pilar (Caldwell), her fiancé, Fernan (Pine), her daughters and a son-in-law. The daughters are actors at different stages in their careers. Nuria (Borowitz) is a highly successful film star, who has just finished a Spanish play. Ironically, her success makes her insecure and aggressively unhappy. She models two dresses the studio sent for her family's advice. Both are more suited to a bordello than the awards ceremony, which she wins. Aurelia (Emond), still struggling to build her reputation, is in rehearsals for a Bulgarian play. Mariano (a charismatic O'Hare) is sometimes her co-star, sometimes her husband. There are video flashbacks as well as the live taping of this performance (by an unnamed cameraman), which are projected on a screen onstage. The audience, too, is part of the performance. It is fascinating to observe how size and perspective change the impact of images, how an actor can seem ordinary onstage yet compelling on film – or visa versa.

Fernan and Pilar are our guides. Pilar, any Every Mother figure (in a bold red suit that manages to look plain), is under attack by both daughters, who also bicker with each other. Pilar, although gratified by her children's success, holds tight to memories of joyful Christmas dinners. Early in the play, she and Fernan find each other. He pays attention to her complaints and adores her company. Recently widowed and a little boring, he feels lost and lonely. He is proud of being a building manager and willingly expounds on the details of his job while she listens. She makes him feel whole, and he promises Pilar a joyful Christmas with his family.

The lovely daughters, of course, are the dramatic center, struggling to achieve, drinking too much or popping tranquilizers, wishing for a sense of well-being. Nuria's fame feeds her restlessness. She has longed to play Sonya in "Uncle Vanya," a character who must wait for the man she adores but who will never love her to return to the estate where she lives. Sonya feels real passion, but no one has been willing to cast the lovely Nuria (her name means the luminous one) as the homely spinster, and now she is too old for the role. Despite her husband and children, Aurelia (whose name puns on the word "real") is discontent also. She envies Nuria's success but has been cast as the lead in what seems a dull, talky play scheduled for a small playhouse. Another daughter, whom we never meet, is also married but dissatisfied. She has had a brief affair and is now pregnant.

Ironically, it is Aurelia and the unpromising role that lead to the epiphany of the play. Her character is a piano teacher who travels a long distance and over a river to an adult male student who will not practice and never improves. Yet something draws her and she continues the lessons. In the last visit, he asks her to play her favorite piece -- and as she does, she finds herself in the heart of the music. The student -- untalented, lazy or perhaps using the lessons to see the teacher -- has permitted Aurelia to live out her passion for the music through him. And she feels fully alive, happy although she has no external success.

Reza permits the audience to take the journey with her characters, to flounder with them in the midst of their anger, anguish and confusion, and then to find a way out. In the end, she says through Aurelia, the externals we all chase only compound our discontent. What matters is our private passions and the people and situations that nurture them, even if they are as mundane as being a successful building manager. "A Spanish Play" is not for all audiences but it will bring some to a moment of emotional clarity and affirmation.


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