“Circle Mirror Transformation,” the best-known play to date by hot scribe Annie Baker, is less than ideally served in its debut at South Coast Rep. Though granted the same helmer and sound, lighting and set designers as the universally acclaimed, Obie-award winning Gotham premiere, this depiction of scenes from a six-week rural Vermont acting class lacks expressiveness and impact. The intimate exchanges of humanity occurring between strangers and opposites — Baker’s playwriting forte — get swallowed up here.
Ex-hippie Martha “Marty” Kreisberg (Linda Gehringer) is doyenne of the Acting 101 regimen in an institutional dance studio (rendered with stark photorealism by David Zinn), her syllabus liberally taken from Spolin theater games and Method-style snooping into psyches. Her breathless aim is to bring her charges to new heights of trust and emotionality; she’s downright stunned when one pupil demands, “When are we going to do some real acting?”
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We’re treated to a series of Godardian quick cuts taken from playtime and break time among the likes of a depressed, divorced carpenter (Arye Gross); an acupressure student (Marin Hinkle) whose bubbliness barely masks her disappointments; Marty’s husband James (Brian Kerwin), a damaged product of the ’60s; and a moody adolescent (Lily Holleman) about to audition for her dream role, Maria, in a high school “West Side Story.”
Baker surely believes in the power of Marty’s seemingly goofy improv exercises to unlock and heal, but much of the time it has to be taken on faith here. That’s partly because the auditorium is too large to convey the little moments of change and growth we sense (but can’t appreciate) are happening on the fly. (The Argyros is the smaller of SCR’s two main houses, but its experimental black box would’ve been far better suited to the play’s tiny discoveries.)
In addition, helmer Sam Gold’s penchant for unfussy verisimilitude so often blocks the cast in profile and with their backs to us that we can’t fully appreciate where they’re at.
Everyone has his or her flashes of supercharged heat, Holleman and Hinkle in particular, and Gehringer’s tireless efforts to engage and stroke her charges are spot on. But too often absent among the ensemble is the crackle of realizations and reactions clearly intended to be felt through the long, enforced pauses. Tedium sets in early, reinforced by Gold’s doggedly socialist-realist approach to a couple dozen scene changes (i.e. switch to half light and have everyone move on and off the same way every time).
We yearn to see these characters in closeup, but the staging keeps restricting them to long shots.