Tuesday, May 7, 2013

NYC Theater Roundup: “The Trip to Bountiful,” “The Testament of Mary,” “The Call”

The Trip to Bountiful
Written by Horton Foote; directed by Michael Wilson
Performances through September 1, 2013
Sondheim Theatre, 124 West 43rd Street, New York, NY

The Testament of Mary
Written by Colm Toibin; directed by Deborah Warner
Performances through May 5, 2013
Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 West 48th Street, New York, NY

The Call
Written by Tanya Barfield; directed by Leigh Silverman
Performances through May 26, 2013
Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Williams, Tyson, Gooding in The Trip to Bountiful (photo: Joan Marcus)
Ageless Cicely Tyson dominates The Trip to Bountiful, Horton Foote’s sentimental but affecting drama about Carrie Watts, an elderly woman yearning to return to her hometown before dying. The 88-year-old Tyson effortlessly balances the heartbreak and humor in Foote’s script; under Michael Wilson’s savvy direction, Tyson gives a beautifully shaded portrayal.

Unlike Geraldine Page—who won the Oscar for the 1985 movie—Tyson never begs for our sympathy, making Carrie as trying as she is ennobling: early on, when Mrs. Watts engages in battles with weak-willed son Ludie (Cuba Gooding in a strong Broadway debut) and bitter daughter-in-law Jessie Mae (the always glamorous and formidable Vanessa Williams), Tyson touchingly underplays Carrie’s obvious disappointment with her lot in life.

Jeff Cowie’s sets, Rui Rita’s lighting and Van Broughton Ramsey’s costumes are wonderfully evocative of 1950s’ rural Texas. Still, despite Foote’s uncharacteristic sappiness—usually leavened with more wit—it’s Tyson who makes this a Trip well worth taking. 

Shaw in The Testament of Mary (photo: Paul Kolnik)
The Testament of Mary, a surprise Tony nominee for Best Play, is anchored by a tour de force from Fiona Shaw, an actress who has never been understated. Colm Toibin’s 80-minute monologue by Christ’s mother after his crucifixion, is too static and abstract—its few flights of poetic fancy notwithstanding—to ignite sympathy for the ultimate bereaved mother.

What Toibin’s text lacks in eloquence it makes up for in affectation, which suits Shaw to a “T.” Her usual theater partner Deborah Warner’s staging tries to make this non-play a Broadway “event.” There’s so much onstage bric-a-brac that Mary utilizes while wandering in front of the audience—a ladder doubles as Christ’s cross, barbed wire doubles as his crown of thorns, Mary bathes in a small pool—that they get in one another’s metaphorical way.

Massive sounds redundantly echo the nails being hammered into Christ’s flesh, the most blatant of Warner’s attention-getting effects, along with an imposing vulture that’s only onstage pre-play (the audience is invited onstage to see it in close-up). Shaw carries the crudely symbolic carrion eater offstage before starting the drama proper, which is the most interesting part of the evening.

Aucoin, Davis, Dickinson, Butler in The Call (photo: Jeremy Daniel)

International adoption, a supercharged political and moral issue, is near and dear to playwright Tanya Barfield. The Call author has an adopted African child, and her drama analyzes the difficulties for any couple taking such a step.

Barfield’s familiar story introduces a white couple, Annie and Peter, trying unsuccessfully to have a child: their decision to adopt came after three miscarriages and failed fertility drugs.  Dining and drinking at their apartment with best friends Rebecca and Drea, a black lesbian couple. They first announce that they are adopting from Arizona, then decide to adopt from Africa: Rebecca and Drea—who recently returned from an African safari where they were considered white by those who lived there—are initially supportive, then start voicing their concerns that Annie and Peter are trying to assuage their white liberal guilt.

Barfield’s schematic set-up also includes Alemu, an African who lives next door to Annie and Peter. Although Russell G. Jones plays him with intelligence and dignity, he remains a blatantly symbolic figure who shadows their decision: he even drops off packages at their place that are filled with syringes, shoes and soccer balls, hoping they will take them back to his homeland when they pick up their new child.

Despite her often crude writing, Barfield’s heartfelt affinity for her characters shines through. Leigh Silverman’s thoughtful directing and persuasive acting by Kerry Butler (Annie), Kelly Aucoin (Peter), Eisa Davis (Rebecca) and Crystal A. Dickinson (Drea) invests these people with enough three-dimensionality to make The Call a touching drama on an urgent subject.

The Trip to Bountiful
Sondheim Theatre, 124 West 43rd Street, New York, NY

The Testament of Mary
Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 West 48th Street, New York, NY

The Call
Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

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