The star wattage of Marian Seldes, at full throttle and transformed into an electric current, could probably keep half of Manhattan comfortably air-conditioned all summer long. But even this formidable force cannot prod “Play Yourself” into permanent life onstage at the Century Center, where New York Theater Workshop is closing its season while “Vienna Lusthaus” continues its run at the company’s home base. This curiosity by the late Harry Kondoleon, making its Gotham premiere some 15 years after it was written, has some piquant and elegantly phrased stretches of dialogue, and plenty of explosive laughs, but they are delivered up by characters who, despite their loquacity, remain curiously indistinct. It doesn’t help that they’re trapped in a wayward and whimsical narrative that dawdles its way to a thoroughly unconvincing conclusion.
A program note from Craig Lucas suggests the director may have concentrated on teasing out the larger philosophical musings in Kondoleon’s writing at the expense of the humbler but rather more central task of giving the play consistent dramatic life onstage. “In Harry’s universe, good is allied with truthfulness,” he writes, “and it is this yearning for truth that complicates matters: More often than not, that which seems honest is nothing more than brutality cloaking itself in a fake and assaultive candor.” Perhaps so, but Lucas’ production leaves audiences yearning for a more dramatically cogent — or at least consistently entertaining — rendering of an admittedly difficult text. As it is, it is possible to be intermittently charmed by Kondoleon’s musings on the pain of life and the traps of identity without believing for a moment in the play in which they are embedded.
Seldes, in resplendent if understandably fulsome form, portrays an ex-movie star named Jean. Jean played the Other Woman in several small pictures way back when, but fled Hollywood some time ago and is now living in not-so-quiet obscurity with her grown daughter Yvonne (Elizabeth Marvel). Jean has retained a certain flair for theatrics, however, as well as a melodramatically morose attitude toward life, both of which are neatly expressed in her first line, in response to her daughter’s announcement of breakfast: “Darling, when you shout at me like that I know I’m alive,” she moans. “Please don’t do it.”
Jean and Yvonne have a complicated relationship. Jean depends on Yvonne for even the simplest of daily tasks — preparing the yogurt and jam she has for breakfast, for example — but implores her to leave and lead her own life. Their chief activities involve re-enacting moments from Jean’s pictures and awaiting letters from their friend Bobby, who is on a tour of Europe with his rich lover and sends peevish dispatches home regularly; the reading of these missives is one of the play’s weaker dramatic devices, and seems an awkward way of drawing in the dark specter of AIDS (Kondoleon wrote the play in 1986 and died of the disease in 1994) and providing for a dramatic finale, when a final letter reveals Bobby’s lover has suddenly died.
But then, not a lot in the play makes dramatic sense. Diversion for Jean and Yvonne arrives in the form of dotty old Selma (Ann Guilbert), whom they invite into their mad tea party after Bobby sends them a clipping of an ad placed by Selma seeking info about Jean. For a biography? No, when Selma learns she’s actually in the presence of Jean herself, she reveals her motive: “Up to now I’ve never appeared as anything but myself, but I’ve always dreamt I could be someone else, and now it’s going to come true!” Self-esteem issues notwithstanding, Selma nonetheless is very proud of her work with Brother Harmon (Juan Carlos Hernandez), also apparently a fanatical fan of Jean’s. Together they run a shelter for “the hopeless,” restoring faith to blighted lives, although Selma quickly gives it up when invited to join the odd menage she’s tumbled into. Did I mention she’s a chronic shoplifter and bakes a lot?
Odder still is the behavior of Brother Harmon, who appears to take little notice of Yvonne, despite her lascivious poses, which occasion some of Seldes’ funniest baleful looks (even if Jean is supposedly half-blind). But suddenly Brother confesses, as soon as Jean and Selma leave the room, that he loves her. “I merely had to recognize the person I have always loved but hadn’t found yet, as you would with something you’ve misplaced before you were born,” he says, and promptly overpowers the cynical, self-hating Yvonne with his sweet and earnest persuasion. A sunny ending for all — save Bobby and his dead beau — ensues.
The play’s woozy plotting wouldn’t be such a problem if Lucas’ production managed to sustain the magical tone that Kondoleon seems to be striving for in his often lyrical writing. But in general the performers don’t find a way of connecting the play’s odd mixture of madcap comedy and stylized musings on faith and love and hope. Marvel, for example, is a forceful, unsympathetic presence in a role that would seem to require some sort of ethereality. Yvonne is maybe one part Blanche duBois (the trampy part) to two parts Laura Wingfield. (Jean’s late-coming line, “Some things actually do work out the way you plan them,” seems a conscious and happy retort to Amanda W.’s bleaker point of view in “The Glass Menagerie.”) Guilbert earns her laughs as the peculiar Selma, particularly when she gives an exuberant impersonation of Jean — which is to say Marian Seldes — in the play’s final scene. But even she seems a bit baffled by her character, and no wonder.
Lucas was more successful at finding the right playful tone in his production of Kondoleon’s more surrealistic play “Saved or Destroyed.” “Play Yourself” is a less cohesive piece of writing. Kondoleon’s gift for poetic dialogue glistens intermittently here, but it is dimmed by the shaky structure of the play surrounding it. Sadly, Kondoleon’s death means there’s no hope of excavating a successful play from the intriguing but fatally flawed one we’re left with.