Writer: Halley Feiffer
Director: Jake Smith
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
It is tricky to review a play that begins with a savage diatribe against theatre critics. Halley Feiffer’s forensic study of the darker side of theatre sees successful playwright David convening with his daughter Ella, an actor, to await the first reviews of an off-Broadway production of The Seagull, in which she has played second female lead. Preparing her for the worst, he tells her not to resent the critics, but to pity them and pray hard for them.
If Feiffer sees critics as a malign force in theatre, she tempers her argument with the admission that her characters’ professions feed off the adulation that only they can give. Little mention is made of audiences. She sets up the play to become a cosy, heartwarming little drama in which father gives loving consolation and daughter gains strength from it, but then she delivers quite the opposite. This late night chat, fuelled by white wine and cocaine, turns into a brutal conflict in which David sets about destroying Ella with all the subtlety of a wrecking ball. He tells her that she is “interesting” rather than beautiful, handing out the back-handed compliment that actors crave least, before he shatters her confidence to little pieces.
Feiffer’s writing occasionally has the ferocity of Albee, spotlighting the venom that runs in this family’s bloodline and through theatre itself. Love may be offered, but is never reciprocated. There are suggestions of black comedy, but wit and irony never surface strongly and director Jake Smith opts to play it as raw drama, allowing two forceful and loud performances to dominate his production, set mainly in Anna Reid’s compact design of a modern Manhattan apartment.
Adrian Lukis plays David as a bullying, egotistical tyrant, eager to exploit his daughter’s vulnerabilities in order to control and manipulate her. He wants her to be a writer, not an actor. He tears into critics, actors, directors and his fellow writers without mercy. Is Arthur Miller really as bad as he describes him? Jill Winternitz’s Ella moves between shy nervousness and near-hysteria, hanging on every word of her father’s oft-told anecdotes as she struggles to avoid confronting her own demons.
90 minutes of theatre navel-gazing ends with a short second act, more an epilogue, in which Feiffer suggests that David may have helped Ella’s career by toughening her up, but at the expense of her inheriting his streak of cruelty. This is the bleak final vision of a play that is high on rancour. but low on heart.
Runs until 25 March 2017 | Image: Scott Rylander