Thursday, June 9, 2011

Off-Bway Roundup: Carey Mulligan Does Bergman, Kushner's 'Illusion,' Bottom-feeding 'Shaggs'

Through a Glass Darkly
With Carey Mulligan, Chris Sarandon, Jason Butler Harner, Ben Rosenfield
Written by Jenny Worton, based on Ingmar Bergman’s script
Directed by David Leveaux
Opened June 6; closes July 3, 2011
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street

The Illusion
With Peter Bartlett, David Margulies, Amanda Quaid, Lois Smith
Written by Tony Kushner, based on Pierre Corneille’s play
Directed by Michael Mayer
Opened June 5; closes July 17, 2011
Signature Theatre, 555 West 42nd Street

The Shaggs
With Peter Friedman, Annie Golden, Emily Walton, Jamey Hood, Sarah Sokolovic
Book by Joy Gregory, lyrics by Joy Gregory and Gunnar Madsen, music by Gunnar Madsen
Directed by John Langs
Opened June 6; closes July 3, 2011
Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street

This Broadway season is over (the Tony Awards are on TV Sunday night), but off-Broadway is still going. As with the Great White Way, however, it’s hit or miss there too.

1961’s Through a Glass Darkly is one of Ingmar Bergman’s most personal films: in it, Karen, a young woman vacationing on a remote island with her husband, father and younger brother, is afflicted with a form of schizophrenia that allows the director to plumb the depths of his favorite themes, the absence of God in the modern world and the most complex male-female relationships. Aided by stunning black and white photography by Sven Nykvist and indelible performances by Harriet Andersson (Karin), Max von Sydow (husband), Gunnar Bjornstrand (father) and Lars Passagard (brother), Bergman’s remarkable chamber drama is among his most uncompromising character studies.

Jenny Worton’s stage adaptation of Bergman’s script gets the outline right, but not much more: what makes the film so memorable is immeasurably wedded to Bergman’s own visual and verbal symbolism that what plays out onstage, while sometimes affecting, pales in comparison, especially by merely alluding to the finale’s powerful spider/God metaphor, so no one who hasn’t seen the film will understand the point.

David Levaux directs without ostentation, as if he realizes that he cannot compete with one of our greatest theater and film directors. But that understatement also makes for a 90-minute one-act play that slogs along content to be a mirror image of the film. Chris Sarandon (father) Jason Butler Harner (husband) and Ben Rosenfield (son) acquit themselves well, and Carey Mulligan’s wonderfully expressive Karin only reminds us of the greatness of Harriet Andersson and the film’s other actors when Ingmar shoots them in his famously unyielding close-ups: the play is merely an approximation of true genius.

Genius is what Pierre Corneille, the 17th century French playwright, had, and mega-award-winning playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in America) did him the ultimate honor by adapting his tragicomic fantasy L’Illusion Comique in 1988, with the result, The Illusion, now onstage as part of the Signature Theatre’s all-Kushner season.

As it follows a French aristocrat who, while searching for his son, is shown scenes from the boy’s life by a magician, The Illusion plays around with well-worn notions of reality vs. artifice, which leads to a final buoyant speech that was definitely ahead of its time in Corneille‘s day but is pretty ho-hum today. Kushner’s dialogue is curiously flat for the most part, and the blame must be equally assigned to Michael Mayer’s draggy staging, the strangely uninvolved cast (including David Margulies, above right) and the adaptor’s own detachment.

There are scattered moments of delightful visual sleights-of-hand to display the wonders of a darkened theater, but this 2-½ hour Illusion is too much of not-so-good thing.

The Shaggs, an abysmal female pop trio, became the Ed Wood of ‘60s musical lore. Of course, as with Wood’s unwatchable movies, the Shaggs’ unlistenable songs are occasionally resurrected as lost and misunderstood art. The musical The Shaggs doesn’t fall into that trap, but by straddling the thin line between mockery and sympathy, it ends up being not much of anything.

The musical shows off the girls’ bottom-of-the-barrel ineptitude so insistently that it’s difficult to tell where their badness ends and the show’s begins: for starters, director John Langs and book writer Joy Gregory make the amateur-night vibe so ham-fistedly obvious that their nudges in our sides start to break our ribs.

That the cast plays it all at an overdone level is initially amusing, then quickly wearying. Emily Walton, Jamey Hood and Sarah Sokolovic (below right) try their best to get across the pathos of being untalented, but are defeated by their director; Peter Friedman plays the father who believes in his daughters’ imminent stardom to the point of madness with an uncommon intensity that throws the whole show out of whack.

Joy Gregory and Gunnar Madsen’s music and lyrics aren’t much more accomplished than the Shaggs’ originals, so we’re left with the bad aftertaste as a dreary soundtrack at the service of what could have made a fascinating psychological study. But then we’d need an Ingmar Bergman to bring that to life.

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