As the first of many wearying monologues in “A Spanish Play” reminds us, acting was once considered a disreputable profession for effete men and loose women. The same character then goes on to point out that actors these days are respected VIPs whose opinions are sought on immigration and gene-splicing. That ironic observation falsely suggests a certain wry distance from an intrinsically self-absorbed field. But someone forgot to tell playwright (and former actress) Yasmina Reza that probably not even James Lipton wants to listen to actors expound at this length on the existential aspects of their craft.
Having appeared on Broadway in Reza’s “Life (x) 3,” John Turturro’s interest in the French playwright comes as no surprise. And his 1998 film “Illuminata” made clear Turturro’s fascination with the process of acting and all its inherent neuroses. But tackling this criminally tedious 2004 play in its English-language premiere was a thankless mistake. The unyielding Pirandellian exercise could perhaps more accurately be titled “Five Characters in Search of Their Navels.”
Beyond her 1998 Tony winner “Art,” Reza’s work often has been revealed as slight, distancing and pretentious, characteristics much in evidence here. Where Pirandello infused genuine mirth into his playful meta-theatrical excursions, this is a lifelessly intellectual work, albeit sprinkled with occasional philosophical wit in David Ives’ lumpy translation.
What’s most disappointing is the misuse of a fine cast assembled for the Classic Stage Company production, including the return to New York theater of the always commanding Zoe Caldwell after more than a decade’s absence.
Exploring the blurry lines separating actor from character and reality from artifice, the play chronicles five thesps rehearsing a Spanish family comedy. Their roles are recently widowed real estate building manager Fernan (Larry Pine), his older lover Pilar (Caldwell), two of her three daughters, Nuria (Katherine Borowitz) and Aurelia (Linda Emond), and the latter’s husband, Mariano (Denis O’Hare).
A successful film actress whose personal life is splashed across the tabloid mags, Nuria is visiting the family, fretting over what gown to wear to the Goya Awards. The actress playing the narcissistic actress muses on her beauty, yet reveals her secret dream to play the forgotten, homely Sonya in “Uncle Vanya.” Reza evokes Chekhov repeatedly, and Turturro takes his cue from the Russian playwright rather than cultivating a lighter touch that might have uncovered some levity in the airless enterprise.
Also an actress, Aurelia is somewhat bitterly waiting for her career break — she’s in rehearsals for another play-within-the-play, this one a 1970s Bulgarian drama, if you please. She struggles with sibling rivalry, concern for her mother and tension with her boozy husband.
The third sister, Cristal, is unseen, though her pregnancy and extramarital affair are fodder for discussion.
“The human brain needs confusion, it needs mess,” says O’Hare, his wired jitteriness cranked high as the actor playing Mariano. “Nothing good ever comes of clarity.” But clarity is detrimentally lacking in Turturro’s production.
Overlap between the performers and their assumed personas is the central conceit, but the lines here are so indistinct and the dialogue so unengaging that any interest in sorting out the two dimensions is canceled. We get a dysfunctional family played by the equally dysfunctional family of a theater ensemble, addressing one another, the audience or the unseen playwright, viewed mainly with suspicion.
Handheld camcorder footage of O’Hare, Borowitz and Emond is plastered across the back wall as the actors question themselves, their characters and their art, assisting to some degree with delineation. But the device is inconsistently used and Reza’s insights on either side of the reality divide are rarely illuminating.
“This is murder,” observes Mariano. “Who’s going to see this stuff?” The question concerns the Bulgarian play, but it seems almost like a provocation from Reza, an acknowledgement of the deliberately elliptical nature of her own work.
Despite the video component, Turturro’s direction remains focused on performance rather than the more dynamic visual presentation that might have given this cerebral work some life. Spread across designer Riccardo Hernandez’s spare yellow set, the meandering staging fails to bind the rambling dialogue exchanges and explosive arias into something cohesive. Reza stubbornly withholds any larger meaning in her ruminations and Turturro does too little to nudge the playwright along during a single act stretching close to two hours.
With their endless carping and bickering and their tireless quests for validation, the actors ultimately can do little to humanize this unsympathetic bunch.
Though she still appears to be finding the full grasp of her quiet character, there’s pleasure to be had from Caldwell’s regal poise and mellifluously husky delivery. And Emond (the standout of “Life (x) 3”) creates a character that at least hints at some possible dimension beyond Reza’s self-intoxicated construct. Hers is the only conflict that feels in any way tangible.