White Barn Theater producer Vincent Curcio, who blundered badly with his choice of South African Reza de Wet’s unfortunate “Miracle” earlier this season, has redeemed himself with Arlette Ricci’s “The Astronaut,” a first play of more than passing promise. Ricci is a granddaughter of French fashion designer Nina Ricci and a Lacanian psychoanalyst-turned-writer. Her play is well within the realm of French intellectual drama, evoking Sartre and Giraudoux (along with Eliot, Shaw and Albee). It is long on exposition and short on action, but it’s full of intelligent, stylish dialogue and a pleasure to listen to. It probably needs to provide more information about some of its characters, but it’s very much within what the White Barn should be, and claims to be, doing: producing new plays with potential.
Set in present-day Paris, “The Astronaut” has nothing to do with space exploration. Instead, its focus is multimillionaire Dimitri (Robert LuPone), whose life is so fulfilled that he chooses to commit suicide at its apex, and the reactions to his decision of his wife, Clara (Denise Lute), and lifelong best friend, Franz (Casey Biggs), also his lawyer. The play’s title is explained when Clara says she’d like her husband to have a memorial along the lines of an astronaut planting a flag on the moon. While this play will probably never be widely produced in this country, it’s ideal for brief White Barn exposure.
Of Russian extraction, Dimitri is described as a silver-tongued sophist, a master of the elegant comeback whose “elegance was his form of despair.” His wife also points out that he always wanted to leave before the end of concerts and plays, hence his decision to leave his life before its natural end. Elegance is an integral part of the script, as are soliloquies. Ricci avoids pretentiousness through judicious use of humor.
Dimitri, however, kills himself in the first act before an audience really gets to know what makes him tick. Ricci might as well tell us more about him; the play is short enough. It seems necessary because Dimitri is very much the pivotal figure in act one, while act two is more about Clara, who is deep in the “disquiet” of middle age, and unhappy Franz, who is devastated by Dimitri’s death.
There are two other characters. Franz’s retired doctor father (a thoughtful Jerome Kilty) dispenses wisdom from the father within him, though he himself is less wise. Then there’s Clara’s mother, Helena (Frances Helm), or is she her mother-in-law? At first she seems to be the former, but the question arises when Clara reveals she was from Chile and plans to return there with her 20-year-old twin sons. Would she do so if Helena and her husband were her mother and father?
All five characters are clearly drawn as far as they go and have relationships of real interest.
The White Barn cast and direction, by Los Angeles-based Michael Arabian, are just fine. Although production values are minimal, lighting designer Leo B. Meyer’s contributions, along with a rear scrim and a few pieces of modern furniture, are all that’s needed for such a play. Arabian has called for and been given panache and well-heeled chic by his cast, all five of whom project assurance and verbal skill. LuPone may be a bit too laid-back in his pre-suicide scene, but he’s highly effective earlier. Biggs is aptly troubled throughout.
There are attractive visual moments, such as characters walking behind the partially transparent scrim and Clara suddenly pulling off her initial blonde wig and later winding a gorgeous crimson-and-gold Indian sari around her, thereby suggesting a Hindu widow about to throw herself onto her husband’s funeral pyre. Lute and Helm wear their fashionable clothes with flair and perform with mature expertise.
One final fact about Ricci, which helps illuminate her play: Her doctoral thesis subject was European nihilism.