Blythe Danner Returns to Williamstown in The Blue Deep

World Premiere by Lucy Boyle

By: - Jul 04, 2012

Blue Blue Blue Blue Blue Blue Blue Blue

The Blue Deep
By Lucy Boyle
Directed by Bob Balaban
Scenic Design, Andrew Boyce & Takeshi Kata; Costume Design, Mimi O’Donnell; Lighting Design, Matthew Richards; Original Music and Sound Design, John Gromada; Production Stage Manager, Libby Unsworth; Production Manager, Eric Nottke; Casting Calleri Casting; Flying by Foy
Cast: Blythe Danner (Grace), Heather Lind (Lila), Jack Gilpin (Charlie), Becky Ann Baker (Roberta), Finn Wittrock (Jamie)
Williamstown Theatre Company
Nikos Stage
World Premiere
June 27 to July 8, 2012

Most of the interest and excitement of the world premiere of Lucy Boyle’s The Blue Deep is the return to the Williamstown Theatre Festival of an iconic alumna Blythe Danner.

Significantly, the performance we saw last night in the intimate Nikos Stage, a Tuesday, was sold out.

Now sixtysomething Danner is stunning, agile, richly nuanced as a performer, and remarkably fit. All of those physical characteristics so aptly fit her character, Grace, that one assumes that the role was written for her or simply could not be performed at this level by any other actress.

While Danner is the riveting heart and soul of Boyle’s play, in its current incarnation, it requires theatrical  triage.

Last summer Danner participated in a live reading of the play at WTF that was so successful it demanded consideration for a full production. It is a mandate for the festival to showcase new works on the experimental Nikos Stage.

Now in her second season as artistic director, Jenny Gersten has changed that to program edgy revivals of established works. Last year that included Streetcar Named Desire and the Doll’s House. For the current season Last of the Red Hot Lovers and Elephant Man are penciled in. The other new work on Nikos Stage will be WHADDABLOODCLOT!!!, by Katori Hall. This season her Mountaintop was staged on Broadway.

With the reduction of new plays to two of four for Nikos (not counting a new musical Far from Heaven on the Main Stage) there is more riding on The Blue Deep. There is always a risk factor in presenting new work. Kudos to Gersten for presenting a young woman playwright with enormous potential. But this play is in a relatively early stage of development. Notably, it was open to regional but not national media.

We first encounter Grace in front of a beach house in Sag Harbor, New York. The stunning and effective set by Andrew Boyce & Takeshi Kata presents a triptych of three flats unfolded like van Eyck’s Ghent altar piece conveying a sweeping sun drenched, blue sky panorama of pricey waterfront property. At the front edge of the stage is a slice of the pool which is a key plot element. A wall of sky has a door and window adjacent to a deck. During the opening scene, as a plot element, there is a downed tree in the pristinely manicured yard.

Alone in the yard she listens to the chirping of a bird indigenous to other hemispheres. The theme of rara avis is enhanced as a metaphor that defines Grace and differentiates her in a contentious, fierce and bitter relationship with her daughter Lila played exquisitely by Heather Lind.

Using an avian analogy Lila has crash landed, uninvited and clearly unwelcome, like a fragile bird with a broken wing. Having just left her boyfriend John she has flown in from California for an indeterminate stay. As an indicator of her wretched circumstances her possessions are stuffed into several plastic bags.

In a benign moment during constant bickering and ugly exchanges Grace mentions the exotic bird.  Lila speculates that it is blown off course by Global Warming. It’s a signifier of their differences.

While Grace is all about ecology, the environment, health and fitness Lila is a messed up young woman who smokes, drinks, cusses and hasn’t a clue what to do next. Grace suggests that she might assist the assistant in her money pit, vanity art gallery.

More or less a writer, hey aren’t we all, when pressed Lila blurts out that she may stay on the East Coast and pursue an MFA in creative writing. Like every other hope and dream of her daughter it is just another volley to smash for a zinger. Sarcastically, Grace responds that it’s a great idea perhaps leading to a career path at Starbucks which may come with benefits. Charging the net Lila smashes back that Grace is just spending the money earned by her deceased father. Grace countered that she shares the wealth by sending checks.

You get the idea. It’s a long evening in two acts of constant bickering. Interrupted by some promising sub plots, like Lila and the hunky gardener (Finn Wittrock), and some truly comic elements  such as when mother and daughter get stuck together with super glue.

For now Lila just wants to go upstairs and unpack in her old room.

That won’t be possible Lila is informed. Arriving unannounced her room has been promised to weekend guests Roberta (WTF regular Becky Ann Baker) and Charlie (Jack Gilpin). Lila is miffed when told she can have the smaller guest room.

While Baker and Gilpin are wonderful performers they don’t really matter to the primary conflict of mother and daughter dealing with the death of husband/ father. There is some chemistry between Grace and Roberta, like when they intermittently dance and exercise together. It  reminded me of the encores of  ABBA’s Mama Mia. Other than the fact that their bickering offers a parallel line with that of mother and daughter the performance by Gilpin is squandered. He doesn’t get to do or say much. Grace and Roberta might well have functioned as friends who are widows and or divorcees.

Truth is we don’t even need Roberta. The play would lose nothing if reduced to Grace and Lila with the character of Jamie as a tipping point between them.

Jamie is a townie and lowly gardener but with an upside. He has a nice body and a slow hand courting Lila getting over her ex who keeps calling.

Roberta dishes her some raunchy advice. “The best way to get over a man is to get under one.” But Grace is aghast at the prospect of Lila’s fling with the gardener. Until she learns that he is pursuing an MA in forestry at Yale. We like Jaime but for Lila there’s not much there, there.

Boyle has written in a rather extreme, awkward, and at times effective device for Grace. She has advanced beyond Pilates to work with a personal trainer whom she is tethered to in the pool. For this she wears a unitard, wet suit with a rather unattractive harness (designed by Mimi O’Donnell). Her pursuit of  Pool-ates conflates exercise and a kinky S&M outfit. Lila snips that it is because her mother is desperately afraid of aging.

But every senior in the house was in jaw dropping awe of Danner’s agility. Especially when, through the harness apparatus, she is lifted aloft performing incredible exercises while hovering above us. There is that bird/ angel/ heaven analogy bludgeoning us.

While the flashpoint between mother and daughter is about the relatively recent death, and their very different responses, we never really learn much about him. All we know is that Grace has transferred his cremated remains from an urn to a truly grotesque, kitsch, yellow, cat shaped, cookie jar. The double entendre of that hideous object is a key prop milked  for overworked comic potential.

Overall, I mostly enjoyed this new play. It was, of course, a joy to see Blythe Danner on stage. What’s not to love about that?

There are elements worth salvaging. But like Jamie noisily cutting up the downed tree with a chain saw it will take Boyle really hacking off limbs to make it work. For starters, get rid of the weekend guests, at best a distraction. Focus on cleaning up the motivation of that mordant mother and daughter relationship. We can only speculate why they are so vile to each other.

Consider an awkwardly staged element of forced bonding when Grace is injured and a concerned Lila lies down to embrace and comfort her. That key moment is muffled and smothered as we don’t see Grace’s face or her range of emotional responses. They are just a prostrate lump on the ground.

What on earth was the director Bob Balaban thinking?

There are other no brainer inconsistencies. The age of Lila is scripted at 27. Casting Danner means that Grace conceived at forty! Well it is possible.  For Grace her body is a temple (she sips kale juice at the beach). How then to explain the scenes of her staggering home drunk and smoking pot with her friends (after what 30 years)? It just doesn’t make sense.

The three weeks of rehearsal and 13 performances of a WTF production create a pressure cooker challenge. Equity rule restrict changes after opening night. For Boyle it is an opportunity to see her work before a live audience and take notes. When and if, the next time this will likely be a sharper and better show.

But the incredible value of WTF is precisely the risk taking of presenting new works. Even with built in disclaimers I would rather sit through a raw and rough new work than a safe, populist production of a proven crowd pleaser.

Ms. Boyle. You go girl.