Review: ‘Triptych’

In 1972, Edna O'Brien's tome "Zee & Co." found film form as minor campsterpiece "X, Y & Zee," with Liz Taylor in her High Baroque period as a couture-clad gorgon hellbent on winning husband Michael Caine back from mistress Susannah York -- even if she must bed the lady herself to do it.

In 1972, Edna O’Brien’s tome “Zee & Co.” found film form as minor campsterpiece “X, Y & Zee,” with Liz Taylor in her High Baroque period as a couture-clad gorgon hellbent on winning husband Michael Caine back from mistress Susannah York — even if she must bed the lady herself to do it. There’s similar cracked soap-operaticism at work in the author’s new “Triptych,” a Magic premiere that tells almost the same story. Only this time, the man is absent — leaving wife, lover and daughter all the more room to catfight and caterwaul over his fickle allegiance. This enjoyably trashy play is an odd fit on the traditionally experimental Magic stage. It would make more sense in a Broadway or West End commercial house, with marquee divas tossing about big hair and bitch quips. Alert Kathleen Turner’s people!

O’Brien has more than four decades of fine novels behind her, as well as a few good stage works; “Virginia” certainly rates among the best considerations of Virginia Woolf’s life and art in any medium. But here her passion-pit take on relations between the sexes, often searing on paper, skirts dangerously close to kitsch melodrama.

“Triptych” has streaks of brash humor that director Paul Whitworth’s production zestfully embraces. Yet the characters’ larger-than-life qualities seem writ a tad too large to be taken seriously, as the script generally demands.

English stage actress Clarissa (Lise Bruneau) is just about to go on as “The Duchess of Malfi” when she’s accosted in her Manhattan dressing room by bizarre alleged well-wisher Pauline (Julia Brothers), wife to famed writer Henry — though she doesn’t identify herself as such. Pauline knows her husband well enough, however, to perceive a threat even before he’s consummated his latest flirtation. The next time she confronts Clarissa, that deed is done, and the actress now guesses her goading, sarcastic “stalker’s” identity.

They spend the next hour or so — intermissionless “Triptych” is brief, though nonstop emotive overripeness make it seem less so — playing tug-of-war with one another and Henry’s devotion. Ever-poised Clarissa fancies herself too jadedly sophisticated to stoop to low offstage theatrics. Yet her scruples re: married men last about five seconds under pressure from apparently irresistible Henry. The self-justifying, true-love-at-last swooning and coloratura jealousy kick in a few moments later.

For her part, Pauline is a practiced she-tiger who won’t give up her mate without as dirty a fight as she can conjure. Which is pretty dirty, and shameless: When teen daughter Brandy (Tro M. Shaw) asks Mom, “What is love?,” she replies, “Ask your father … ask his whore.” When Clarissa later wonders where Pauline obtained some intimate information, the wife shrugs, “I suck it out of him like a shaman sucking a boil.” Oh.

Vivid language is not lacking in an evening whose linguistic coarseness at times verges on the embarrassing — if only because its adult female characters otherwise come off as escapees from Noel Coward Land.

O’Brien’s San Francisco residency to complete “Triptych” was duly reported in the dailies as attracting a rich array of local celebrity pals; she was housed by a Getty, no less. Perhaps the play’s mix of bitch-slapping, Greek-tragedy moaning and mid-Atlantic-accented scatology makes sense if you come from A-list, jet-setting stock. From a proletarian viewpoint, however, its psychological fabric seems awfully purple. The adult leads might quite usefully be portrayed by talented drag queens.

Poor Brandy is a “daddy’s girl” initially appalled by ma’s drunken disarray; she then responds to their mutual neglect by descending into a cautionary snakepit of premature sexuality and drug usage. Excerpted, her scenes could be titled “Raver Madness.”

Bruneau manages impressive subtlety as an actress whose professional vanity allows no personal insight into just how perfectly she realizes every “other woman” behavioral trap. Brothers, a standup comic as well as legit thesp, brings considerable punch to the grotesque and acidic sides of Pauline’s character. What neither thesp can do is render the play’s intended emotional pain genuine rather than strainedly ersatz.

Kate Edmunds’ set design does the best it can with the requirement of myriad interior locations; other tech contribs are high-grade.

Triptych

Magic Theater Southside; 160 Seats; $50 Top

Production

A Magic Theater presentation of a play in one act by Edna O'Brien. Directed by Paul Whitworth.

Creative

Set, Kate Edmunds; lighting, Kurt Landisman; costumes, B. Modern; sound design, Michael Woody; props, Sarah Ellen Joynt; stage manager, Sabrina Kniffin; production manager, Kenny Bell; casting, Jessica Heidt. Artistic director, Chris Smith. Opened Dec. 6, 2003; reviewed Dec. 12. Running time: 1 Hour, 20 Min.

Cast

Mistress, aka Clarissa - Lise Bruneau Wife, aka Pauline - Julia Brothers Daughter, aka Brandy - Tro M. Shaw
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