Their charm and talent a given to theater audiences, husband-and-wife acting team Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson hardly need a greatest hits package to put their twin careers in perspective, yet “In Persons” strives to do just that. What Wallach, Jackson and their audience need even less is a show that simply doesn’t strive hard enough.
A hodgepodge of favored readings and selected scenes from various sources (mostly plays in which they appeared together), “In Persons” does little justice to the performers, not to mention to writers as diverse as Dorothy Parker, Tennessee Williams and Terrence Rattigan. Taken out of the context of their original works, the pieces almost invariably fall short dramatically. And dramatically short.
Between the 10 selected pieces, Wallach and Jackson engage in sweet if overly scripted reminiscences that more often than not lack the humor and poignance obviously intended.
Take, for example, Wallach’s backstage anecdote about a drunken fan he encountered during the run of Williams’ “The Rose Tattoo.” The story, brief though it is, aims for nowhere and gets there. Surely a production as celebrated as “Tattoo” could have provided a more intriguing tale, but Wallach isn’t telling.
Perhaps most disappointing, though, is the thoroughly competent, thoroughly uninspired level of performance from these two gifted actors. Certainly they never slip below an admirable level of proficiency, but neither do they rise — with one or two possible exceptions — to the breakthrough moments hoped for throughout the show. The dearth of dramatic momentum isn’t surprising given the herky-jerky structure, but since Wallach and Jackson apparently chose and arranged the selections they must take the lion’s share of blame.
Director Martin Charnin gives the actors little bits of business to keep the proceedings from immobility, but the show can’t shake its stilted, forced ambience. Throughout “In Persons” one has the maddening wish that Wallach and Jackson would just loosen up and tell what really happened backstage and at home all those years ago.
Comparisons to Lynn Redgrave’s similarly structured “Shakespeare for My Father” are inevitable and telling. Where Redgrave delves into both the personal and the professional — and demonstrates the connections between the two — Wallach and Jackson waltz demurely on the surface. They owe themselves more.