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Say this for the French writer Yasmina Reza: her work attracts the A-list. Almost every actor with an Olivier or a Tony did a stint in her international hit Art. And for A Spanish Play, now off-Broadway, the director John Turturro has coaxed Zoe Caldwell out of semi-retirement.
Caldwell’s last regular New York stage appearance was as Maria Callas, and deities of La Divina’s magnitude appear in a photo montage that inaugurates the drama. Like the frequent references to Chekhov, these brilliant images tend to remind us what this Reza lacks: any sense of real actors inhabiting a real stage. Only Denis O’Hare, as a middle-aged sod named Mariano, exhibits much authenticity; his descent into drink seems as much a resigned response to the vacuity of his character as to the role’s requirements.
To the extent that the evening has a story, it involves actors rehearsing a play while they suffer the annoyances of family life offstage. They address us in monologues, and try to persuade us that a meta-reality exists behind our waking life. Boundaries between the actors’ professional and personal lives are so haphazard that, in spite of David Ives’s heroic translation, the worlds mush into one.
There are splashes of bullfighter red on the floor, a garish Andalusian yellow-brick wall and the occasional drop of a name such as Velázquez, but why Reza’s play is called Spanish is otherwise slightly mysterious. Caldwell, whom I would follow to Hull to hear nursery rhymes recited, bears the name Pilar.
Yasmina Reza deals in pseudo-profundity. We put up with it in Art because the actors were having such fun and because there were moments of inspired boulevardier buffooning. In A Spanish Play, the cast – which also includes Linda Emond, who was so good in the Broadway production of Reza’s Life x 3, and the always admirable Larry Pine – are given a considerably less satisfactory workout.
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