Southern Fried

It's a pretty sad state when a playwright has caricatured herself by the time her most successful script gets worldwide attention. Former SMUtant Beth Henley had not only cornered the market in eccentric, obsessive Southern women when Crimes of the Heart was first being produced everywhere, she appeared to be having a liquidation sale, so fast and furiously did these characters pour out of that play and subsequent scripts. She does to dizzy Dixie chicks what playwright Wendy Wasserstein does to educated, upscale single women--draws them in the light, simplistic strokes of those painting instructors on television who make clouds and shrubbery with deft little smooshes of tissue. They've got the formula down so reflexively, they've ceased caring about the soul of their creations. Both are brimming with goodwill toward humanity in general, which alone makes them unusual stage artists, but you can only smile for so long when the precocious child repeats that adorable trick a third or fourth time in front of company. Pretty soon, your face begins to hurt.

I really can't think what 11th Street Theatre Project could do to jumpstart Henley's Impossible Marriage, which enjoyed a brief but successful New York debut recently. Unfortunately, director Jamie Baker, who previously directed Crimes of the Heart at Pocket Sandwich Theatre, has not meshed her performers into the right manic tone to keep us distracted from the Henleyan equation being worked out yet again. We visit the garden of a prosperous widow named Kandall (Alice Montgomery, in the show's most consistently charming turn), whose youngest daughter Pandora (Salina Bensman) is about to wed a writer (Geoffrey Ashlock) many years her senior. Everyone, it seems, wants to thwart the nuptials, including the writer's bookish, gun-wielding son Sidney (Erik Knapp) and Pandora's very pregnant, scheming sister Floral (Dona Safran). Kandall believes that fairies live under toad stools; Pandora wants to be wed wearing giant blue wings; Floral walks onstage festooned in baubles, declaring she's read that one should accessorize heavily in the late stages of pregnancy. By the second act, we are begging for an adjustment in their daily dosages.

Two actors in the play, Eric Knapp and Tom Eppler as Floral's rakish husband, have excelled on the 11th Street stage before. Yet they are so different in tone and delivery--Eppler, especially, registers faintly here, an unexpected deficiency from this performer--that we feel ourselves constantly having to adjust our attention, as though we're channel surfing between two different comedies. Of course, Impossible Marriage ultimately feels like not just another comedy about wacky human nature, but another thousand. I'd suggest Beth Henley try her hand at adapting, say, a Greek tragedy, but I fear that Medea would wind up poisoning her children's iced tea as she served them on the honeysuckle-woven porch.

You can bellyache all you want about millennial audiences lacking the patience and concentration to sit through a two-hour show, and be more or less correct. Still, there is an unflattering reality that stage artists must be aware of in order to avoid it: Plays are sometimes more fun to perform than they are to watch. Here I am, thinks the actor, making expert and very satisfying impressions of the comic and tragic masks; why are the ticketbuyers not laughing and crying themselves damp? The best actors must be sensitive to the reaction of the audience even while they operate as if unaware of its presence. This is why taped versions of live performances--the ones where they merely set up a couple cameras and let them roll, without technical enhancements to the production--have that quality of tasteful cruelty required to pin exotic insects behind glass for display. There is the beautiful image but not quite the spirit that makes it more than decorative.

When I was a kid and a member of the Fireside Theatre book-of-the-month club, I would read published scripts and look at the cast photos of performers whom I watched in movies. I imagined how they looked and spoke and moved in-person, in a theater where I shared the same breathing space they did. I was especially fond of the stage-bred neurotic actresses whose youthful careers exploded in firecracker storm clouds of self-manufactured eccentricity, only to age into the supporting character parts they were born to play. Imagine my shock when at Premiere Video I encountered Anton Chekhov's The Three Sisters from Hen's Tooth Video, the filmed-for-TV revival directed by Paul Bogart. He mostly supervised the technical elements so Actors Studio Theatre founder Lee Strasberg could preserve his directorial work.

In the four central female roles, Strasberg had corralled Geraldine Page, Sandy Dennis, Shelley Winters, and Kim Stanley. Stanley was to have her umpteenth nervous breakdown after this particularly fractious and hotly discussed interpretation; according to reports I devoured as a kid, Strasberg was wont to shout, "My God, you're murdering Chekhov!" during rehearsals, reserving particular scorn for the stammering, hand-fluttering, lip-pursing Dennis. She was simply the logical outcome of his fusion of Stanislavsky and Sigmund Freud. (Stanislavsky himself would vociferously denounce the early, self-indulgent American transplant of his theories about acting as self-exploration.) But so too were the more polished if less charming Page and Stanley. All these actors expressed difficult emotions with difficulty. All were also scrupulously intelligent artists who, if they sometimes sacrificed sentimentality for paranoid style, eschewed nobility for individuality in the much-hyped tradition of Marlon Brando, challenged you to follow their performances. At their best, they were like jazz singers, giving an unexpected spin to dialogue the way a club singer, with a small but devoted coterie of fans, would phrase a lyric against the rhythm and melody and squeeze your heart with the contrast. A friend of mine who for years has tried (and failed) to develop a taste for Billie Holiday, because he thinks he should, recently expressed his resistance with insight: "She sounds like she's singing to herself." Bottom line--you either have an appetite for this stylized self-infatuation, or you don't.

Anton Chekhov was famous for predicting the Russian class revolution at the turn of the 19th century by depicting the small conversations of intellectual and/or privileged people who have no sense of time and history, who are so wrapped up in their own arrogant idealism that they ignore the power of crude human nature. The Three Sisters is exemplary of Chekhov's comic tragedies, in which Olga (Geraldine Page), Masha (Kim Stanley), and Irena (Sandy Dennis), the grown daughters of a celebrated but dead military man, are forced to live in a provincial Russian town and--gasp!--work for a living. They pine fruitlessly to return to their idle lives in urban, cosmopolitan Moscow, complain about the peasant neighbors, and make truly bitchy remarks about their brother's wife, Natasha (Shelley Winters), a clumsy and grasping local who takes to patrician pretense like a Moscovite to vodka. Man trouble pervades. Olga's a spinster; Masha hates the man she's married to and recklessly fixates on a major (Joseph McCarthy), and Irena agrees to marry a fellow she doesn't love to escape the countryside.

Deliciously, even as they spin in tight concentric circles of contempt for their neighbors, vulgar Natasha barges into the household and pulls it out from underneath them, forcing the sisters into worse privation. She's the fun-house mirror that grotesquely reflects what the three sisters take for granted; she meets them halfway up the ladder, aspiring to the materialism they can no longer maintain. Shelley Winters, maligned by a generation of gay and straight film commentators, walks off with this taped show as surely as she (and Peter Sellers) stole Stanley Kubrick's frigid Lolita. She displaces her co-stars with coarse cunning.

The shitty, pixilated black-and-white cinematography flattens everyone's presence, but the intensity of the actress quartet chafes with inspiration against their TV confines, a conflict between static presentation and confessional, hand-to-the-mouth outbursts. They play the ultimate family distraught by snotty disappointment; being bankable New York stage actors, they seem to be trying to break out of their television format. Geraldine Page, who had already managed to translate her fretful style into near-movie star status by appearing in genre flicks opposite Paul Newman, John Wayne, Dean Martin, and Clint Eastwood, is the exception. She hangs mostly in the background as the eldest sister who becomes a school headmistress against her will. She is less flamboyantly anxious than Dennis and Kim Stanley, because of her familiarity with commercial film demands, you might assume. No matter who plays them, Chekhov's people are sadly blinkered by their own ideas about life, and the women in this murky but urgent Actors Studio TV production know how they want to render his dreaminess and distraction. It's your job to appreciate or disparage the way they go about it.

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Jimmy Fowler