The stars — the cosmic kind as well as the Hollywood variety –are in magical alignment for this production of “Talking Heads,” Alan Bennett’s exquisite series of monologues originally written for television. Impeccably directed by Michael Engler with a cast of film-and-TV-stars-who-do-theater, the production is slated to run only through the end of the month at the Tiffany, the intimate dual-theater space on the Sunset Strip that’s slated for closing in preparation for the Sunset Millennium development. The brevity of the event — its extension would require a move to a different space — serves to make its brightness even more apparent, providing for a privileged few a glimpse of what theater can be in Los Angeles when the sun and moon, and the busy schedules of the stars, all align just so.
The seven selected half-hour monologues — lovely character sketches with narrative threads that unravel with a careful pattern of dramatic irony — will be performed three at a time. This means that one can go twice and still have a monologue unseen — a shame, since all six of those that opened what’s being called a “festival” are well worth seeing. Individually, they’re effectively funny, poignant or both at once. Together they make up something very beautiful, and they have the power to leave one wanting more even after sitting through several hours of them.
The pieces, with one exception, are monologues for women. That’s quite an exception, though, since the one male piece, called “A Chip in the Sugar,” is the one that most stood out for its sheer perfection. Daniel Davis, who as the butler Niles on “The Nanny” was Fran Drescher’s primary foil, demonstrates that his gifted comic timing can be put to deeper and far more emotional use in this piece. He plays a middle-age man named Graham who still lives with his mother and has a moment of intense panic when she reconnects with an old lover.
The Southerner Davis spent years playing an Englishman, and his accent is superb, clearly a notch or two above the others. But it’s more his sense of how the piece comes together that makes “A Chip in the Sugar” la creme de la creme. Davis captures all the nuances of the character and invests Bennett’s expertly written plot developments with just the right double edge.
Another sitcom actor with serious stage credentials makes a deep impression. On “Malcolm in the Middle,” Brenda Wehle plays the slave-driving owner of an Alaskan saloon. She’s an entrepreneur in “The Hand of God” as well, in this case Celia, the keen-eyed owner of an antiques shop. The piece is filled with some of Bennett’s best black comedy, as Wehle lays out, with just the right emphasis on the detailed descriptions, the character’s covetousness of a dying woman’s possessions. Wehle even manages to make an unsympathetic figure someone to pity when she gets a comeuppance.
The other performers are also excellent, just perhaps not as surprising. We’re used to seeing Kathleen Chalfant be sharp onstage — her performance in “Wit” at the Geffen was among the most memorable turns in town. Chalfant, now a regular on CBS’ “The Guardian,” plays Susan, a vicar’s wife whom we gradually learn has a serious problem with alcohol in “A Bed Among the Lentils.” The actress makes a strong choice for the role, and instead of playing all nervous energy, a characteristic hinted at in Bennett’s script, she finds Susan’s need for escape in her long-repressed fierce intelligence.
Swoosie Kurtz is ideally cast in “A Lady of Letters,” making fine use of her exceptionally expressive face to play the busybody Miss Ruddock. There’s no better moment in all of “Talking Heads” than when this character, ordered by the court to stop writing letters, decides that a cop on the beat outside her flat “wants reporting.” It’s ever so subtle a moment, but Kurtz nails it: Miss Ruddock is like a dog with a meaty bone within its reach who’ll be able to resist disobeying only so long and no longer.
“A Lady of Letters” is pure comedy, one of two in that vein. The other is “Her Big Chance,” in which Valerie Mahaffey (“Northern Exposure”) plays an actress who just doesn’t seem to understand that she’s starring in a soft-core porn flick. Bennett (“Beyond the Fringe,” “The Madness of King George”) is poking some terrific fun at method acting here, and Mahaffey has a blast with it.
While Bennett’s expertise is clearly the comic, there’s one piece, “The Outside Dog,” that’s hardly funny at all. Annette Bening, who developed her craft as a theater regular in the Bay Area before launching a film career, plays Marjory, a neat-freak housewife who begins to suspect that her husband may be a murderer. It’s an unglamorous role for Bening, a bit of a stretch but one she’s clearly up to. She lets the suspicion loose a little too early but still finds the horror in the work while never letting it devolve into melodrama. It’s a chilling little play, quite different from the rest but equally, perhaps even more, impressive.
Tyne Daly will join the rotation this weekend in “Miss Fozzard Finds Her Feet,” one of the three follow-up pieces that were made for the BBC but have never been performed onstage.
Rachel Hauck’s spare, elegant set — hardwood floor, plain flats that can be reconfigured quickly –is ideal, even inspired, as it allows the carefully selected pieces of furniture, like the writing desk in “A Lady of Letters,” to define a character’s whole world. Tina Haatainen Jones’ costumes, Chris Parry’s lighting and Michael Roth’s music also work together with absolute efficiency.
The producers deserve serious credit for putting this together, and particularly for their choice of Engler, who like the performers has worked on Broadway but now earns a living directing episodic television (“Six Feet Under,” “Sex and the City”). Engler provides “Talking Heads” with much-needed unity, since the style of the works needs to be consistent in order for the collection to be more than a grouping of unrelated sketches. Taken as a whole, these are certainly more than that, providing a view into the interior minds of characters, and thereby providing a view of the interior mind itself. The more of these one sees, the more universal they become. Like stars — the kind in the nighttime sky — they sparkle alone, but they also form a meaningful constellation.