M. Proust

Mary Zimmerman is the type of auteur theater artist who doesn't so much write for the stage as craft her work on it. For "M. Proust," director Eric Rosen finds some ways to prettify this one-person play about the famous novelist's housekeeper, this show never escapes from the staid and studied into anything resembling drama.

With:
With: Mary Beth Peil.

Mary Zimmerman, best known for her dreamy “Metamorphoses,” is the type of auteur theater artist who doesn’t so much write for the stage as craft her work on it. As a writer, she tends toward heavy doses of third-person narration, but she makes up for the emotional distance with her unquestioned directorial flair for the viscerally visual. For “M. Proust,” though, Zimmerman serves solely as writer, and while director Eric Rosen finds some ways to prettify this one-person play about the famous novelist’s housekeeper, this show never escapes from the staid and studied into anything resembling drama.

Part of the problem is that, at heart, “M. Proust” is a character study of a rather uninteresting prude. Celeste Albaret was Marcel Proust’s maid during the last eight years of his life, while he wrote most of his masterpiece, “Remembrance of Things Past.” Following his death, Albaret kept her secrets for decades, finally breaking her silence to defend her late employer against growing evidence of his sexual proclivities toward men. “If anything like that went on,” she insists, “I would have known about it.”

Of course, she’s in denial, which at times requires some psychological gymnastics. “Don’t concern yourself with that back door!” she commands the audience at the show’s most effective — and comic — moment, wiping away with irrational ardor the obvious explanation for her obliviousness to who came and went from Proust’s bedroom.

As Albaret, Mary Beth Peil provides a smooth combination of working-class elegance and French condescension. But denial is not the easiest dramatic clay to work with, particularly when the stakes seem so low. Peil does her very best to make Proust’s heterosexuality matter to Albaret, but that simply doesn’t make her determined defense of his morals matter at all to us.

Only a small part of the play deals directly with the subject of sexuality, although it is central to the work’s conceit. For much of the play, Albaret recounts how Proust would return from social engagements and relate to her all the evening’s conversations, prior to crafting the events into his fiction.

But Peil’s game efforts at depicting the varied characters Proust met and imitated falls quite flat. These scenes just never feel lively, and there’s very much the sense that we could as well be reading this content — based on Albaret’s published memoir — rather than watching it performed.

There are redeeming elements. Rosen and his design team create some attractive stage pictures, with a bedroom and a chandelier appearing in the rear of the stage through a scrim. The background, representing Albaret’s memory, is always hazy, a probable nod to Proust’s own take on the mind’s inability to recapture time past.

But it’s not enough to create any sense of surprise or even insight. And it certainly isn’t enough to lift this prosaic work into the realm of the poetic.

M. Proust

Steppenwolf Upstairs Theater, Chicago; 265 seats; $40 top

Production: An About Face Theater presentation of a play in one act by Mary Zimmerman, based on the writings of Celeste Albaret and Marcel Proust. Directed by Eric Rosen.

Creative: Set, Daniel Ostling; costume, Mara Blumenfeld; lighting, Chris Binder; sound, Andrew Pluess; dramaturg, Elizabeth Williamson; production stage manager, Calyn P. Swain. Opened, reviewed June 17, 2006. Runs through July 16. Running time: 1 HOUR, 20 MIN.

Cast: With: Mary Beth Peil.

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