Americans had good reason to anticipate Timberlake Wertenbaker’s follow-up to “Our Country’s Good,” her paean to the redemptive power of theater in an Australian penal colony. With “Three Birds Alighting on a Field,” she strides brashly into Caryl Churchill territory, taking on the contemporary art scene with the same comic relish Churchill slathered on Wall Street in “Serious Money” and land speculators in “Fen.”
Wertenbaker cares about important subjects, and she brings to them a cynicism about people’s motives that can be ferocious. But even if Morley Safer of “60 Minutes” hadn’t recently made sport of trendy art and the cult of criticism surrounding it — not to mention Tom Wolfe’s excoriating dissection of the subject almost 20 years ago with “The Painted Word”–“Three Birds” would seem a step behind better works on a similar theme.
It’s not Wertenbaker’s fault that this same Manhattan Theater Club produced Donald Margulies’ “Sight Unseen” two years ago; Max Stafford-Clark’s staging of “Three Birds” premiered six months earlier at London’s Royal Court Theater.
Still, it’s hard to watch “Three Birds” without thinking about how passionately and deftly Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine handled the very subjects Wertenbaker broaches — artists as well as their art surviving in a philistine commercial environment — a decade ago in “Sunday in the Park With George.”
Stafford-Clark reprises here and he’s brought along the Royal Court production’s superb star, Harriet Walter. She plays British-born Biddy Andreas, the upper-crust, intellectually adrift wife of a Greek mogul (Zach Grenier).
Recognizing the entree value of art collecting, “Yoyo” Andreas prods Biddy into frequenting a gallery run by the supercilious Jeremy Bertrand (Daniel Gerroll, who does British superciliousness as well as anyone) and his crass American associate Alex Brendel (Caitlin Clarke). It’s a mercantile world in which Schnabel is a verb.
As it happens, Stephen Ryle (Jay O. Sanders), one of Jeremy’s
former artists, currently outre, has renounced London for the countryside, where he paints abstract landscapes.
“Three Birds Alighting on a Field” becomes a passage to redemption for both Stephen and Biddy. But not before Wertenbaker introduces us to a gaggle of comic characters that includes a Romanian emigre (Robert Westenberg); a student of Stephen’s (Dierdre O’Connell) on the brink of success; a wildly self-important art critic (Jill Tasker); and a gauche Texan (Grenier) — more shades of “Sunday in the Park”! At the opening, a blank canvas is auctioned for T1.2 million. The scene illustrates both the play’s satiric pulse and its heavy-handedness; later, Wertenbaker gives several characters long polemics that simply stop the play in its tracks.
Yet “Three Birds” is also full of keenly observed moments that reveal more character than we’ve been led to expect.
Nine actors play the 24 roles unevenly, though Wertenbaker breathes real life into only a few of her characters, while the rest barely rise above parody. Sanders cuts through Stephen’s rhetoric and finds a real human being there; this always fine actor more than holds his own against the radiant Walter. O’Connell is utterly winning as Stephen’s spiky protege, while Grenier adds another fine, restrained performance to a fast-growing roster.
Stafford-Clark brings a cinematic grace to the play’s staccato scenes. He’s aided by Sally Jacobs’ simple, inspired set. Rick Fisher’s lighting also figures greatly in the ease with which we move between city and country in this minimal setting, as do Peter Hartwell’s costumes. It’s a persuasive production of a play that never fully overcomes its own indulgences.