A cigar is probably never just a cigar for the endlessly analytical couple at the center of “Intrigue With Faye,” a new play by Kate Robin, a writer-producer on TV’s “Six Feet Under.” Then again, the play’s navel-gazing narcissists, Lissa and Kean, probably would never let their mutual self-absorption lapse long enough to notice such a mundane object. Why should they, when the minutiae of their emotional interaction provides such fascinating material for discussion?
The narcissism is excusable, and even mildly enjoyable, given that Lissa and Kean are played by the exceptionally sexy Julianna Margulies and Benjamin Bratt, both of hit NBC series fame. They are, individually and collectively, a pleasure to behold.
Alas, this being a play and not a Vanity Fair photo spread, they are required to talk. And how! As written by Robin, Lissa and Kean could make an Olympic sport of therapy-speak. Lissa is, in fact, a therapist, but Kean, a filmmaker, matches her issue for issue: her lack of trust, his lack of commitment, her need to idealize their relationship, his need to withdraw from her. On and on they go, like fencers armed not with swords but verbal cattle prods, tirelessly parsing the trivialities of their emotional entanglements, with each other and the stray objects of desire who are so ill-starred as to enter their orbit.
Sample exchange, randomly chosen: “So you’re saying these infidelities are a way of being seen by me?” “And it’s also like this sick way of feeling … separate. Like I’m not defined by you …” “So it’s through this acting out and lying about it that you experience your individuality, your identity.” “Yeah.” “Well, that’s challenging.” “But it’s like, what’s an identity anyway? It’s just a bunch of defenses. It’s like this arbitrary way of feeling significant.” “Well, not necessarily. A healthy sense of self is generally desirable.” “Yeah, but not from, like, an Eastern perspective.”
The ceaseless chatter about “issues” and “processes” and denial and avoidance and communicating is at first amusing. But Robin isn’t actually satirizing her characters; she is really just indulging them. And they are dreadful bores. With the exception of those few in the audience who share the characters’ addiction to self-analysis, most will find two full hours in their company oppressive, stultifying, insupportable. Even as embodied by such a pretty pair, these are folks you’d cross the street — possibly move to another city — to avoid.
Robin does dress up this tournament of therapeutic ping-pong with a technological twist. Early on, Kean confesses to Lissa that he’s been unfaithful. He’s contrite and he wants to change. Or, as he puts it, “I’ve lied to you a lot and the more I lied, the more I couldn’t let you know that I had ever lied and the more scared I was of you. But now, I know that knowing the reality of you is more important to me than the illusion of myself.”
Translated, this comes to mean that Kean wants them both to videotape their lives, 24/7, as a way of ensuring total honesty (“I want to learn how to be the person I would be if someone I love were watching me all the time”). They then will review the highlights together, mutually exploring the issues that arise.
These video segments, in which Lissa and Kean confront lovers (his), clients (hers) and colleagues (theirs), are shown on a large screen at the back of the stage. They turn out to be the most appealing sections of the play, primarily because they allow us to escape, digitally at least, the suffocating atmosphere of Lissa and Kean’s apartment (the fishbowl in Riccardo Hernandez’s set is a witty touch) and meet some less doggedly analytical folks.
The first victim is Lissa’s colleague Frank, played with a delightful sense of dumbfounded incredulity by Craig Bierko. The look of stupefaction on Frank’s face when Lissa confronts him with the issue of the “sexual tension” between them is priceless, as are his bewildered protestations when Lissa badgers him with her need to “make our friendship more … meaningful.” “I don’t really want our friendship to be more meaningful,” is his sensible reply.
Gretchen Mol plays the title character, with whom Kean has been conducting a liaison, with seductive complexity. Jenna Lamia has a cute cameo as another of Kean’s extramarital flings, and Swoosie Kurtz and Tom Noonan are hilarious as a couple in therapy with Lissa, with Kurtz henpecking her husband into a catatonic state.
The performers onstage, unfortunately, have harder chores. They and director Jim Simpson are charged with bringing emotional authenticity to the play’s welter of psychoanalytical banalities, and their efforts are only marginally successful. Margulies, as the wronged woman, has more opportunities for range, and her entrancingly husky voice has its own allure. She is an interesting performer stuck in an uninteresting role. But Bratt is bland; his small-scaled perf tends to register better in the video segments, and evaporate onstage.
Perhaps Bratt has, like his character, taken his cues from Eastern religion and is attempting to infuse some Zen-like distance into his performance. At one point Kean reminds us the Buddhist faith points to the ego as the source of all suffering. “Intrigue With Faye” calls that notion into question: Sometimes theater can lend a helping hand.