Banishing typecasting, Charlotte Westenra’s choices for the two contrasted characters in “Kiss of the Spider Woman” are a surprise. Who else would have looked at Rupert Evans’ resume — BBC period dramas and a recent lithe and boyish Romeo for the RSC — and cast him as rough-hewn political prisoner Valentin? Nor is strikingly intense Will Keen the obvious choice for effeminate Molina. Only Keen pulls off the casting gamble. His perf is so mesmerizing it lifts the wobbly Donmar production into something approaching full flight.
A tale of love and betrayal in a Buenos Aires jail, Manuel Puig’s 1976 novel was adapted for the stage by the writer, then filmed by Hector Babenco, before Kander and Ebb turned it into a musical. In all its incarnations, the plot has remained effective.
Window-dresser Molina befriends Marxist Valentin, who is initially perplexed and not a little disgusted by his gay cellmate. The men come to a mutual understanding: Valentin discovers the importance of human connection, Molina has his eyes opened to political idealism. But,both suffer beneath a web of deceit spun by the authorities.
So far, so schematic. Unfortunately, Westenra’s revival fails to paper over the cracks.
The play consists of the two men embarking upon an emotional journey from opposite directions. But in Westenra’s Donmar debut, not only is the atmosphere too tepid, Evans is so miscast his character appears to be at the end of his journey from the word go. Drama is drained from the proceedings because the threatening, bullyingMarxist has been replaced by a naively earnest student of politics.
Evans’ is as thin as someone might be on prison rations, but his lean physicality gives off no sense of the swarthy masculinity Molina craves.
It’s as if director and actor have based everything on his line: “The greatest pleasure is knowing I am part of the noblest cause.” Evans suffers beautifully, but his degree of nobility is the production’s downfall.
Straight actors playing gay nearly always results in shelf-loads of awards for overrated perfs — step forward William Hurt and Tom Hanks — but Keen deserves prizes for all the right reasons because he never plays “gay.”
Swathed in a faded salmon kimono, his Molina is almost Japanese in his smooth-toned politeness. He makes an initial bold choice — a highly-placed tenor voice that rolls and savors his every phrase — and allows that to define his liquid, languid physicality.
Yet for all his fluting manner and amused self-deprecation, Keen is steely. His commanding gaze controls the tone, mood, rhythm and dramatic content of every scene, pulling the entire wrong-footed production into focus. So much so that by the second half he has both Valentin and the audience eating out of his hand.
What makes the perf even more remarkable is that Keen stepped in at 10 days notice when Iain Glen withdrew from the production.
At the climax, when the two men reach a state of mutual understanding and love, irony kicks in. The men are divided by Molina’s previously longed-for release. Both rigorous and unshowy, Keen’s shivering, contradictory embodiment of elation and heartbreak is extraordinarily affecting. `