Annie Baker has crafted a beguiling little play out of almost nothing in “Circle Mirror Transformation.” Imagine a reality show about a community center drama class, minus the behavior-conditioning presence of cameras, and you have some idea of the situation. Humor and poignancy are coaxed forth, love swells and recedes, and guarded people step into the light, all of which is orchestrated with a subtlety and unfailing naturalness that make the play’s small revelations disarming and unexpected. On the page, this might be amorphous, living and breathing only with the gentle massaging of a magic-fingered director and an intuitive cast. It gets both in Sam Gold’s no-frills production for Playwrights Horizons.
Baker’s first New York production was last year’s minor-key charmer “Body Awareness,” about a lesbian couple unsettled by the arrival of a cocky male artist in their cozy home. The writing was distinguished by its fluid, real-sounding dialogue, understated comic observations and quirky psychological acuity. Those qualities are all evident again here in a less conventionally structured play.
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Anyone with experience of drama workshops has had at least one teacher they will instantly recognize in Marty (Deirdre O’Connell). Usually adorned with headscarf and oversize earrings, equipped with knowing eccentricities but without self-irony, these alternative-education stalwarts coach students through relaxation, memory, focus, mood and role-play exercises that often seemed dated even in the ’70s, cooing words of encouragement like “Wow,” “Thank you” and “Great job.” But like the four students in her six-week small-town Vermont class, Marty transcends the stereotype.
David Zinn’s set is a perfect facsimile of a community center rec room, from the mirrored wall to the institutional drapes to the kids’ poster art visible in the hall outside. The play starts slowly with the characters supine on the floor mid-exercise. This establishes Baker’s tactic of leaving audiences to figure out the rules and objectives of each exercise for themselves. Even the precise nature of the class is not immediately clear, though again, anyone with minimal drama training will guess.
Information about the five characters also is doled out in fragments, often by other group members channeling their classmates in exercises. Marty’s husband, James (Peter Friedman), is a mellow middle-aged hippie; Theresa (Heidi Schreck) is a sunny blond actress recently relocated from Manhattan; Schultz (Reed Birney) is a depressed, newly divorced carpenter; and Lauren (Tracee Chimo) is a mopey 16-year-old who signed up because she wanted to get the edge in auditions for her upcoming high school production of “West Side Story.”
None of these characters is especially remarkable or original, but it’s the realness brought to them by Baker, Gold and the uniformly terrific cast that creeps up on you until you’re suddenly surprised by how well you know these people. The characterizations display a miniaturist attention to detail that goes down to the bone, and the actors convey as much in a look, a gesture or an awkward silence as they do in words. Baker is never blind to their weaknesses and faults, yet regards them all with a warm, empathetic eye.
Arbitrary as it is to single out anyone in such a seamless ensemble, Birney (“Blasted”) continues to impress as a gifted stage actor, his affectless delivery smartly contrasting his deep well of feelings. And Chimo is a real discovery; Lauren’s puzzled sneer and deadpan judgments are responsible for many of the play’s generous ripples of humor, but the actress never pushes for laughs. Real or imagined, her personal evolution in the final week-six exercise is extremely touching.
The one-act play is broken down into six sections covering each week of the course; the scenes within are punctuated by multiple blackouts, usually to signal a cut to a different exercise. It’s not so much a narrative as a series of pianissimo movements that grow out of this structure: Theresa and Schultz strike up a romance that dissolves in bitterness; Lauren reveals uncomfortable truths about her family life; James is caught off-guard by unexpected feelings; and Marty gets knocked off her yoga ball by the sting of one of her truth exercises.
Not a lot happens in terms of plot — as the title implies, the characters come together, examine themselves and each other, and emerge somewhat changed. But this is a fine example of a writer, director and cast delivering substantial yield out of the simplest of setups.