The 20-plus scenes in Alexander Dinelaris’ “Still Life” are like those snapshots people take on vacation — dramatic moments that resist a central narrative. Thematically, the disjointed style isn’t out of place in a play about a famed photojournalist who loses command of her art after the death of her father. Having assembled a nimble cast, helmer Will Frears takes them briskly through their paces in this cinematic production for MCC. But like those trip photos, no matter how you scramble them, the scenes never add up to the vivid narrative that exists only in the mind’s eye of the photographer.
Sarah Paulson brings an abrasive edginess to the difficult character of Carrie Ann Daly, a photographic artist celebrated for capturing “the rage, the fear, and the irrepressible optimism of an entire generation.” Snappish and sullen when first met, Carrie Ann is clearly in crisis. Unable to work, she’s locked into a morbid obsession with the frailty of life and the inevitability of death. In fact, the last photos she produced were studies of dead animals.
The open layout of David Korins’ minimalist set (meticulously lighted by David Weiner) allows for Frears’ fluid staging of key flashback scenes illustrating the process whereby Carrie Ann came to lose her art. The existential crisis apparently began when she was caring for her senile father, Theo (Domenic Chianese), himself a noted photographer, developing into full-blown neurosis after his death.
In his commanding perf of this old lion, Chianese isn’t afraid to play the cruelty of the brusque father, as well as the selfishness of the famous artist. Paulson is also riveting in their scenes together, especially when she confronts the reality that she’s a better artist than her father.
While all this domestic angst is going on at stage right, stage left is taken up with the chronologically told story of Carrie Ann’s love affair with Jeff (Frederick Weller), a whip-smart trend analyst who finds himself inexplicably drawn to Carrie Ann’s still lifes of dead animals.
Weller gives a technically sharp, emotionally understated perf of this detached and vaguely unhappy Hamlet who shares Carrie Ann’s morbid artistic sensibility. Weller and Paulson play well together, carefully constructing Carrie Ann and Jeff into the poster couple for modern-age alienation.
But having created his ideal couple for this age of existential anxiety and paralysis, Dinelaris doesn’t quite know what to do with them, other than show them together and separately interacting (or not interacting) with their equally disaffected peers. While this results in some idle amusement — especially in scenes between laid-back Jeff and his hyper-crude boss, Terry (all aggressive energy in Matthew Rauch’s wired perf) — none of this brittle chat advances the plot. Mainly because there isn’t any plot until Jeff falls ill and takes the story down its expected path.
Dinelaris writes decent dialogue that occasionally puts some real oomph into a scene, as when Theo makes peace with his limitations (“It’s cruel to realize your mediocrity at the end of your life”) and embraces his daughter’s artistic superiority. Or when Carrie Ann’s self-effacing assistant, Jessie (in a sweet and savvy perf from Halley Feiffer), erupts into an amusing aria of self-debasement. But like the inert generation it presumes to represent, all that sound and fury about death and dying signifies nothing about life.