“The Blue Room,” David Hare’s contemporary version of Schnitzler’s classic “La Ronde,” is in part about the risks one takes for making the effort to connect with people. The theater, too, can require risks, and prominent Los Angeles-based director David Schweizer certainly takes this Pasadena Playhouse production out on a limb by adopting an aggressively stylized approach to the characterizations. The result is a limp affair that, despite its physical attractiveness, doesn’t work at all. It’s not intimate, it certainly isn’t sexy, and it manages not even to be provocative, let alone shocking.
Following the structure of “La Ronde,” Hare depicts a chain of liaisons of the sexual sort. In the first scene, a prostitute works her charms on a cab driver; then the cab driver courts an au pair; the au pair seduces the law student whose family she works for; the student sleeps with a married woman; and so on. In Hare’s version, all of these parts are played by two actors, here Arabella Field and Lenny Von Dohlen.
“The Blue Room” was a hot ticket in London and New York, where it was directed by “American Beauty” helmer Sam Mendes, but not because there was anything special about the play — a list of versions of “La Ronde” would require the felling of a forest, and this one’s OK but hardly up to Hare’s usual standards. The show gathered fast buzz simply because Nicole Kidman shed her clothing.
Sure, there’s some nudity in Pasadena, too, a noteworthy event at this conservative playhouse. It’s full but only very fleetingly frontal, and it’s done with a self-consciously posed staging that robs it of any immediacy or sense of the risque. (The program, and even the advertising for the show, is so filled with dire warnings that it’s surprising folks didn’t show up with opera glasses for a better view.)
The whole production has the same prettified self-consciousness — Geoff Korf’s lighting is heavy on the blue, of course — while Schweizer keeps the actors in highly presentational mode, speaking mostly directly to the audience, “performing” their characters rather than embodying them.
This style certainly emphasizes the archetypal nature of the characters, but it also strips them of an internal life. In Field’s and Von Dohlen’s hands, these folks are just accents — a cabbie’s urban drawl, an au pair’s ill-defined foreign inflection, a politician’s Southern tinge. Neither actor possesses keen vocal talents — if it weren’t for Maggie Morgan’s costumes telling us when the characters changed, we probably wouldn’t notice the switch.
The costume changes occur mostly onstage in the scene transitions, accompanied by composer/sound designer Stafford M Floyd’s alternating mix of soft jazz and club music. At the end of each segment, one of the actors points to the back of the theater, as if ringing a big bell, and the scene shifts, with set designer Christopher Acebo filling in the warehouse-like space, black with doors that roll up on each side, with the individual settings appropriate for the next scene.
Other than the clever, burlesquey voice that informs us to turn off our cell phones before the 90-minute one-act play begins, and the punch-line projections that inform us of the length of each sexual encounter, the production design is the most successful aspect of the show. It’s generic and specific at once. That quality is exactly what’s lacking in the playing, which is defined by vagueness alone. There’s no human connection going on here — and it’s not an excuse to say it’s a play about failing to connect. To accomplish the latter, one must at least allow for the possibility of a deeper bonding. The gestural nature of Schweizer’s staging goes only halfway — it’s not elaborate or expressive enough to verge on choreography, but it’s too busy to be genuine.
Without a baseline of human reality upon which to spin an illusion, without a recognition of the real emotional stakes involved, there is no illusion. Just a couple of actors on stage being fake, even when they’re naked.