Review: ‘The Blue Room’

The sex is mostly accompanied by blackouts -- some of them dryly funny -- in David Hare's "The Blue Room," the latest in a seemingly ceaseless series of "La Ronde" adaptations that constitutes its own circular daisy chain.

The sex is mostly accompanied by blackouts — some of them dryly funny — in David Hare’s “The Blue Room,” the latest in a seemingly ceaseless series of “La Ronde” adaptations that constitutes its own circular daisy chain. So the first thing to be said is that peeping Toms wanting to see Nicole Kidman in the buff will have to settle for a passing glimpse fielded with a thankful lack of coyness by the star.

As for the more lasting question — can this particular Hollywood name cut it onstage in London, as Kevin Spacey and Juliette Binoche most recently have before her — the answer is yes, especially in the confines of a studio space, the Donmar Warehouse; in fact, it’s far more intimate than the mostly cool and dispassionate play that Kidman has chosen to reprise in a promising ancillary career.

Whether Kidman or “The Blue Room” itself will translate to a larger arena is as up for grabs as the enduring appeal of this extended conceit, a tepid thematic also-ran to Patrick Marber’s far more corrosive “Closer.” Indeed, it could be argued that Kidman’s presence across five parts (and as many accents) is the most substantial aspect of what in essence remains a caprice: The play evaporates as you watch it, even as Kidman’s minxlike allure lingers well after the last of 10 sketchlike encounters has gone its none-too-erotic way.

There’s far more of the provocateur in Sam Mendes’ current New York revival of “Cabaret” than in this work (and production), whose modish detachment couldn’t be further from the engaged, sometimes transcendent Hare behind “Racing Demon,” “Amy’s View” and, most recently, “Via Dolorosa.”

The epiphanies available in all three of those plays are simply not an option here: In their place is a piece about the restlessness and longing that find couples forever colliding and then coming apart without ever achieving proper, uh, climax. In the carnal world of Mendes’ stylishly unadorned staging, the earth moves more often than the audience is moved.

The play’s structure is both fascinating and self-limiting: One retains a voyeuristic fascination throughout, watching a young prostitute hook up with a taxi driver who then pairs off with an au pair who in turn flaunts herself in front of a student and so on, until one winds up back with the prostitute, and the lustful round robin presumably starts again.

To what end? A shocking one, ostensibly, if the source material’s suppressed history is any gauge — or a disturbing one, at the very least. (Schnitzler’s original play was written not for public performance but was handed on to his friends, who judged it too obscene.)

But the fact remains that it’s difficult to engage with a handful of women and men who represent so many scientifically observed particles of desire, not flesh-and-blood figures in heat.

Or maybe it’s simply that in our era of Zippergate and almost daily lurid TV confessionals, we’re all too inured to the seductions on view, especially when Kidman’s quietly enticing stage passions bump up against the sexless posturings of her colleague, Scottish actor Iain Glen (“Martin Guerre”).

The two performers constitute a decidedly odd match for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with Kidman’s greater celebrity. (One can think of several British actors of Glen’s stature who might have made for a more arresting partner.)

Perhaps it’s Kidman’s familiarity with the camera that allows her to flourish under the focused lens of a Donmar audience, playing, among others, an actress of genuinely novel vanity — the role in other hands could be a hopeless cliche — or a bored politician’s wife who invests the single word “goodness” with enough resonance to fuel a Pinter play.

Indeed, on this evidence, and with her gleaming legs, Kidman might make a near-ideal Ruth in “The Homecoming”; her tart comic timing, recognizable from “To Die For,” suggests she could do Coward, too.

Glen, in turn, is a seasoned, classically trained theater performer whose declamatory skills only externalize further a quintet of characters who, in Hare’s text, tend to announce their every thought, leaving us little to intuit. “My life is a search for a love that stays real,” he says in his guise as an aristocrat in thrall to Kidman’s thesp.

But though she, in turn, admires that her suitor “goes to the very heart of things,” that’s exactly what Glen doesn’t do here. Accent-perfect though he may be, he parades the roles before us without inhabiting them, and all Glen’s brave baring of flesh — a naked cartwheel included — doesn’t sell the sizzle that might release the affective power of this collage of despair.

Still, if Glen’s performance has the whiff of an acting exercise, it’s matched by those jokey and/or lazy passages that seem like an exercise in transliteration, not an acute depiction of social and erotic malaise.

To that end, the evening is as schizoid as a sleek set design by Mark Thompson — broodingly lit by Hugh Vanstone — that sacrifices its bare-bones visual power every time the hard-working crew cart on and off the stage some very heavy props. (A turntable would clearly help.)

And yet, for all the disengagement, one is never bored, thanks chiefly to a distaff lead who draws the audience into. “You acted …,” Glen’s Aristocrat begins to tell Kidman’s Actress in the final scene, a remark she interrupts with a hilarious “thank you” before he finishes the sentence.

But the truth is that Kidman herself really does perform, finding the red-hot reality at almost every turn of an enterprise that can’t help seeming as borrowed as it is blue.

The Blue Room

Donmar Warehouse, London; 251 seats; £25 ($42) top

Production

A Donmar Warehouse presentation of a play in one act by David Hare, adapted from Arthur Schnitzler's "La Ronde." Directed by Sam Mendes.

Creative

Sets and costumes, Mark Thompson; lighting, Hugh Vanstone; original music, Paddy Cunneen; sound, Scott My-ers. Opened, reviewed Sept. 22, 1998. Running time: 1 HOUR, 40 MIN.

Cast

With: Nicole Kidman, Iain Glen.
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