Some 10 characters pass through “The Blue Room,” copulating like there’s no tomorrow, but for all the steamy sexual traffic onstage, watching the play is a chilly, empty experience. David Hare’s surprisingly wan adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s “La Ronde” arrives on Broadway after a tidal wave of publicity surrounding its lissome young star, the fabulously glamorous, famously espoused Nicole Kidman. (When was the last time the star of a Broadway play made the cover of Cosmo — er, I mean Newsweek? Give up? So do I.) But the box office dynamo the play has become can’t disguise the fact that it’s an aesthetic non-event, an anticlimax of proportions inevitably commensurate with its avalanche of advance publicity.
One notes an irony: At the last turn of the century, when the play was written, it was considered too dangerous to be published and later inspired police action; on the cusp of the next, the text has become virtually insignificant, lost in the swirl of celebrity hype that has surrounded the production. Play? What play? Draw your own conclusions about the decline of culture; sellout audiences aren’t likely to care. They’ve come to see a star, and they will.
To the point, then: Kidman is indeed an exquisite beauty of a kind it’s impossible not to watch. She commands attention with her presence, her luminous fair skin glowing entrancingly against Mark Thompson’s neon-blue background. But the encomiums laid at her feet by the press in London, where Sam Mendes’ chic production first opened at the Donmar Warehouse, have probably done her a disservice. While her performance is always watchable (she plays five roles, as all sentient beings no doubt now know), Kidman is not yet a stage actress of sure or subtle technique.
Her acting is sometimes touching, generally efficient and superficial, occasionally amateurish. It seems fussier than it did in London, with much fluttering of hands and girlish pouting. Playing the actress, strangely, she hits a low ebb, doing a silly, grandiose Tallulah Bankhead impersonation; her prostitute, by contrast, is the most quietly affecting.
On film, Kidman can communicate depths that sometimes go beyond the texts she’s given (notably in “To Die For”); onstage she doesn’t, and it’s too bad, because that’s just what this play needs. Hare’s version of Schnitzler’s roundelay of sexual encounters is described as being “freely adapted” from the original, but despite updating, it hews quite closely in matters of detail, right down to lines of dialogue. Sometimes this jars: When the contempo politician speaks condescendingly to his wife of the existence of “two types of women,” a whiff of the 19th century morality Schnitzler was commenting upon comes through.
It’s a pity Hare didn’t take a freer hand. He is best when he’s being expansive — Hare made two hours of electric theater out of two characters and a single sexual encounter in “Skylight,” after all. But packing 10 characters and as many trysts into an hour and a half here, he seems uninspired and constricted. When trying to be economically suggestive, he turns obvious. “Do you think any of us is ever just one person? … With one person we’re one person, and with another we’re another,” one character says, blandly stating a clear theme, as does another when speaking of the endless, fruitless search for a love that “stays real.”
Hare’s richest characters share the author’s wit, eloquence and intelligence, all of which will be on far better display in both “Via Dolorosa” and “Amy’s View” on Broadway later this season. None of the adventurers in “The Blue Room” do. The 10 characters here are flatter creations, generic types clinically observed: a prostitute, an au pair, a politician and his wife, a model. Their unions give off little sexual and almost no emotional charge.
In more accomplished actors’ hands, the play’s faults might not be insurmountable, but if Kidman ably gets by on sheer star power, Iain Glen doesn’t have that. He’s an earnest and competent but rather dull actor, although any performer who performs a nude cartwheel on stage deserves some kind of award.
As the prostitute couples with the cab driver, the cab driver with the au pair, the au pair with the student, in transactions that rarely give rise to any powerfully conveyed feeling, monotony quickly sets in, despite the wickedly funny blackouts that give the times required for the actual sex acts (from 0 minutes, to two hours plus). Monotony is part of the point, of course, but it’s the soullessness of the encounters, not the people, that should strike us. These characters seem to have no lives beyond those bright-blue walls; they disappear from memory as soon as the actors shed the costumes.