Americans had good reason to anticipate Timberlake Wertenbaker’s follow-up to “Our Country’s Good,” her paean to the redemptive power of theater in an Australian penal colony. With “Three Birds Alighting on a Field,” she strides brashly into Caryl Churchill territory, taking on the contemporary art scene with the same comic relish Churchill slathered on Wall Street in “Serious Money” and land speculators in “Fen.”
Wertenbaker cares about important subjects, and she brings to them a cynicism about people’s motives that can be ferocious. But even if Morley Safer hadn’t recently made sport on “60 Minutes” of trendy art and the cult of criticism surrounding it — or Tom Wolfe hadn’t dissected the subject nearly 20 years ago in “The Painted Word”–“Three Birds” would still seem a step behind better works on a similar theme.
It’s not Wertenbaker’s fault that this same Manhattan Theater Club produced Donald Margulies’ “Sight Unseen” two years ago; Max Stafford-Clark’s staging of “Three Birds” premiered six months earlier at London’s Royal Court Theater. But it’s hard to watch “Three Birds” without thinking about how passionately and deftly Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine handled the very subjects Wertenbaker broaches — artists as well as their art struggling to survive in a Philistine commercial environment — a decade ago in “Sunday in the Park with George.”
Stafford-Clark reprises here, and he’s brought along his original production’s superb star, Harriet Walter. She plays British-born Biddy Andreas, the upper-crust, intellectually adrift wife of a Greek mogul (Zach Grenier) aptly described by another character as a “creepy foreign social climber.””Yoyo” Andreas needs a wife who will provide him access into London society, which Biddy does, and who will construct for him an English persona, which she has no idea how to accomplish.
Recognizing the entree value of art collecting but obsessed with the quaint notion of Lake District landscapes as quintessentially English, Yoyo prods Biddy into frequenting a gallery run by the supercilious Jeremy Bertrand (Daniel Gerroll in a trademark performance) and his crass (natch) American associate Alex Brendel (Caitlin Clarke). This is a mercantile world in which Schnabel is a verb.
As it happens, Stephen Ryle (Jay O. Sanders), one of Jeremy’s former artists, currently outre, has renounced London for the countryside, where he paints abstract landscapes (one of which the production, in Stafford-Clark’s sole major lapse, actually shows us).
“Three Birds Alighting on a Field” becomes a passage to redemption for both Stephen and Biddy. But not before Wertenbaker introduces us to a gaggle of comic characters that includes a Romanian emigre (Robert Westenberg) who demands free contributions of art for his spiritually starved people but who may himself be a scam artist; a student of Stephen’s (Dierdre O’Connell) on the brink of success; a wildly self-important art critic (Jill Tasker); a gauche Texan (Grenier) — more shades of “Sunday in the Park”! — and other hangers-on.
At the opening, a blank canvas is auctioned for 1.2 million pounds. The scene illustrates both the play’s satiric pulse and its heavy-handedness; later, Wertenbaker gives several characters long polemics that simply stop the play in its tracks.
Yet “Three Birds” is also full of keenly observed moments that reveal more character than we’ve been led to expect, as when Biddy describes her response to Francis Bacon’s isolated men, or when the terrified Yoyo is caught shoplifting at Harrod’s. Or when, in the play’s most Shavian twist, the Romanian turns on his skeptical hosts, calling them hypocrites because he doesn’t match the socialist ideal of affluent liberals.
Nine actors play the 24 roles unevenly, though rich as her subject is, Wertenbaker breathes real life only into a few characters while the rest barely rise above caricature. Sanders cuts through Stephen’s rhetoric and finds a real human being there; this always fine actor more than holds his own against the radiant Walter. O’Connell is utterly winning as Stephen’s spiky protege, while Grenier adds another fine, restrained performance to a fast-growing roster.
Stafford-Clark brings a cinematic grace to the play’s staccato scenes; he’s aided by Sally Jacobs’ simple, inspired set of clear panels hung with empty black frames and a line-drawing of the English countryside repeated along the backdrop. Rick Fisher’s lighting also figures greatly in the ease with which we move between city and country in this minimal setting, as do Peter Hartwell’s costumes. It’s a persuasive production of a play that never fully overcomes its own indulgences.