Thursday, March 12, 2015

Theater Reviews—"The Audience," "The Mystery of Love and Sex"

The Audience
Written by Peter Morgan; directed by Stephen Daldry
Performances through June 28, 2015
Broadhurst Theatre, 236 West 45th Street, New York, NY

The Mystery of Love and Sex
Written by Bathsheba Doran; directed by Sam Gold
Performances through April 26, 2015
Mitzi Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center Theater, New York, NY

Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth in The Audience (photo: Joan Marcus)
Already an Oscar winner for playing Elizabeth II in Stephen Frears' 2006 drama The Queen, Helen Mirren now may win a Tony for playing her in The Audience, a play by Peter Morgan (who also wrote The Queen's script). But Morgan and Mirren are not merely repeating what they did in The Queen: the film documented the rocky relationship between the monarch and new prime minister Tony Blair following the death of Princess Diana, while the play is a cleverly constructed conceit about the Queen's private weekly meetings about policy and politics over six decades with eight of England's prime ministers while she has been its monarch.

This engrossing drama is resolutely not a mere procession of prime ministers from Winston Churchill to David Cameron; instead, the chronology is jumbled (John Major, in 1995, comes first; the last—who appears several times during the play, where it's suggested he was Elizabeth's "favorite"—is Harold Wilson in 1975), and the Queen is also visited several times by herself as a child, showing her as a precocious, questioning young princess.

Morgan adroitly combines the political and the personal, as the Queen gets chummy with some of the men, whereas others—like the lone female, Margaret Thatcher—she keeps at arm's length. Of course, it's impossible to say if these recreations are in any way accurate: is the Queen really as articulate, insightful, witty and funny as she is here? Mirren is simply sensational, but always subtly: even when making a clever comment, she says it offhandedly, casually, which makes it less implausible than it might be otherwise. She is also unerringly true to her character, whether she's a wide-eyed 25-year-old newcomer having her first meeting with Churchill in 1953 or a tired 86-year-old in a 2015 meeting with her current prime minster, David Cameron. 

Like the woman she plays, Mirren never hogs scenes; her marvelous ability to underplay allows her costars to shine individually. Although Dylan Baker's Major and Judith Ivey's Thatcher approach caricature, the rest are finely illuminating in their impersonations. Most impressive are Richard McCabe's all-too-human, self-effacing Wilson and Dakin Matthews' brusquely entertaining Churchill. Jeffrey Beevers stays on the right side of camp as the Queen's Equerry, who literally sets the stage for the audience in the theater, while Sadie Sink and Elizabeth Teeter alternate as a charming young Elizabeth.

Magisterial throughout are Bob Crowley's sets and costumes, Rick Fischer's lighting and Ivana Primorac's hair and make-up (with a special assist to stagehands helping Mirren in her quick changes onstage). Morgan somewhat surprisingly barely touches on Tony Blair—he's briefly seen defending the imminent Iraq invasion—but since he figures so prominently in The Queen and two TV films Morgan wrote (The Deal and The Special Relationship), he isn't really missed.

Shepherded by the skillful director Stephen Daldry, The Audience is an intelligently wrought slice of you-are-there history.

Diane Lane in The Mystery of Love and Sex (photo: T. Charles Erickson)
The biggest mystery of Bathesheba Doran's ambitious but heavyhanded The Mystery of Love and Sex is why the playwright embraces so many cliches as she rattles off provocative pronouncements on her title subjects, along with many others.

If her story is unoriginal—white girl Charlotte and black boy Jonny have been such close friends since they were nine years old that their discussing marriage while they attend college together rattles her parents, sassy Southern belle Lucinda and famed crime novelist and "New York Jew" Howard—fresh insights and observations can still be wrung from it. But at nearly every turn, Doran ratchets up narrative implausibilities and racial and religious stereotypes while dutifully checking off Important Events in her characters' lives (suicide attempt, divorce, adultery, homosexuality), resulting in often risible melodramatics.

Doran has a keen ear for dialogue, so some conversations ring true; then there are the other moments where what's said sounds force-fed by the playwright instead of the natural back-and-forth among real people. Two gratuitous nude scenes and a wordless and pointless brief appearance by Howard's father further the sense that Doran, on shaky ground, grasps at straws to keep the audience on her side.

Sam Gold directs with impressive control, and his cast is equally good: Gayle Rankin and Mamoudou Athie are appealing as Charlotte and Jonny, while Tony Shaloub dances precariously but thrillingly on the edge of cartoonishness as Howard. Best of all is Diane Lane—in her first New York stage appearance in an astonishing 37 years, when she was 13—who remains one of our most captiviating and incisive actresses. As Lucinda, she even smokes and drinks bewitchingly.

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