Have you ever found yourself envying those opening-night audiences at plays like Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” when they didn’t have a clue about the the big secret awaiting them at perf’s end? If so, you would be advised to skip this review, and buy yourself tickets to Joanna Murray-Smith’s wonderfully intriguing new play, now being given its American premiere at the Geffen.
There’s a secret — a preposterous gift — that is revealed near the end of Murray-Smith’s play, and it’s a real doozy. Sadie (Kathy Baker) and Ed (Chris Mulkey) are observing their 25th wedding anniversary at a tropical resort where they meet Chloe (Jaime Ray Newman) and Martin (James Van Der Beek) who are enjoying their eighth wedding anniversary. Those words “observing” and “enjoying” sum up their respective marriages. (It’s interesting to note here that at the Pasadena Playhouse, in the current revival of the 1925 play “Fallen Angels,” Noel Coward offers portraits of couples who are married only five years and already bored to death with each other. So maybe married love has actually seen worse days?)
In the play’s opening scene, Murray-Smith gives her characters way too much dialogue about the rip-off that is the mini-bar. But she captures perfectly the way in which generations patronize each other: The younger couple compliments Ed on being a successful self-made businessman, the older couple compliments Martin on the promise of his career as an artist. (Tellingly, the wives’ careers get short-shrifted.) The subtext, of course, is pure envy: money and security vs. youth and vibrancy.
There’s also a long and beautifully written exchange about raising children in a narcissistic culture that has forced Chloe into driving her daughter to a plethora of classes for which the kid has no talent or aptitude. The childless Sadie and Ed are only mildly bemused, but the audience at the Geffen really, really responded with knowing laughter.
What Murray-Smith lacks in the opening scenes is a strong situation to bring her two couples together and keep them there. In Albee’s “Virginia Woolf,” there’s the college pecking-order and politics to galvanize them. Even in a boulevard comedy like Yasmina Reza’s “God of Carnage,” the threat of litigation brings together the disparate parties.
In “The Gift,” the couples’ meeting at a resort doesn’t quite suffice, and it takes a while for the real drama to unfold with Chloe and Martin’s compromised take on parenthood.
Baker and Mulkey are pitch-perfect, but Murray-Smith has made them a little too rube Republican for the other artistically inclined couple to tolerate them for over five minutes. In addition to the mini-bar talk, Ed is reading a bio of Bill Gates because he can’t be bothered with fiction. And so on. What is not explored is the possibility that Ed and Sadie could be potential patrons for the still-struggling artist Martin.
Nonetheless, a friendship is established, a few boundaries (mostly to do with sexual attraction) are nearly crossed, and in a very effectively staged boating accident, Martin saves Ed’s life. Needless to say, a gift is required.
As good as the other actors are under Maria Aitken’s expert direction, “The Gift” might very well fall apart without Van Der Beek’s carefully calibrated performance. It’s subtle, but he withholds so much right from the get-go that he immediately becomes the play’s dark center, and the promise of something ready to be revealed, if not explode, drives the play.
Murray-Smith has Ed scream stuff like “I don’t believe this!” a bit too much. But her extended final scene, in which the two couples hash it out, plays a beautiful game of ping-pong with the audience’s allegiance. George Bernard Shaw would be proud.
Derek McLane’s spacious white box of a set lends itself convincingly to a variety of locales under Peter Kaczorowski’s imaginative lighting and Howard Werner’s projections. The Caribbean storm that leads to the boating accident is a real knockout.