A Spanish Play

  • Review by:
    Barbara Mehlman

    Written by: Yasmina Reza
    Translated by: David Ives
    Directed by: John Turturro
    Cast: Zoe Caldwell, Katherine Borowitz, Linda Emond, Denis O'Hare and Larry Pine
    Synopsis: What's Truth? What's Illusion? A Spanish Play us behind the scenes to a rehearsal of a play where the line between real life and the theatre begins to blur.

    Review by Barbara Mehlman

    Yasmina Reza is a force to be reckoned with in the theater. Her 1998 play, 'Art,' was a tightly written exploration of the nature of art and friendship, and won the Tony for Best Play. In her 2003 play, 'Life x 3,' Linda Emond, playing opposite John Turturro, won a Tony for Best Featured Actress.

    This year, the French playwright has given us 'A Spanish Play,' a play-within-play that mixes traditional drama with a stage version of reality TV, and the effect is both intriguing and alluring. The actors, the real ones, periodically break away from the play they're rehearsing (called 'A Spanish Play'), break through the fourth wall, and break into monologues of varying length about their relationships, how they feel about acting and their characters, and random thoughts on life, love, and the world.

    As they speak to us, blurring the line between what is the play and what is real life, a technician with a handheld camcorder follows them around, projecting them onto a screen or a wall, thereby making him very much a part of the action as well (though he gets no prominent credit). This backstage approach to theater, looking at a play that's not yet ready for prime time, is fascinating.

    Most of us probably never think about the construction job that precedes the staging of a play with all that goes into it, and Reza's camera device has done just that for us by allowing us to get into the heads of the actors. Unfortunately, the script does not live up to the high expectations we've come to have of her given her previous successes.

    The play the actors are rehearsing is about a family with the usual catalogue of dysfunctions that make up both theatre and daily life. It is the story of PIlar, a family matriarch, and the building manager, Fernan, a man much younger than she though Pilar refers to him as her fianc� and he doesn't deny it. Her big complaint, she tells the audience when she breaks out of her part, is that she hates wearing a jabot -- 'it makes me feel as if I have a goiter.'

    Her actress daughters are currently in an emotional crisis, and though they disapprove of Pilar's relationship (Nuria thinks it's absurd), they're too busy dealing with their own troubles. Nuria, beautiful and successful, really wants to play something substantial, like Sonja in 'Uncle Vanya,' while Aurelia, trying to juggle motherhood and acting, is having a problem finding her voice in the Bulgarian play she's rehearsing about a piano teacher who can't communicate with her students.

    Their competitiveness is palpable, and when Nuria asks Pilar if she thinks Aurelia is more talented, Pilar, with a benign smile replies, "You're the beauty."

    Aurelia's husband, Mariano, is a math teacher with an existential crisis of his own. Explaining that he is a wimp, he therefore concludes he can have no morals since wimps "can't be strong enough to have morals."

    I found myself transfixed by this curiously constructed play from the outset, though after a while, I began to lose track of whether I was in or out of the play and felt as if I'd lost my place, sort of the way I felt when I read "100 Years of Solitude." But after two hours sans intermission, which I thought was over after 90 minutes, only to have the actors each return for a series of seemingly purposeless monologues, I no longer cared, and wondered why the director didn't do some slash-and burn-editing to tighten up this rambling production. (The snoring was beginning to get real loud.)

    The only reason to see 'A Spanish Play,' irrespective of a tedious script, is the extraordinary cast, a AAA-Team consisting of Tony winners Zoe Caldwell, Linda Emond, and Denis O'Hare, as well as Larry Pine and newcomer Linda Borowitz, with direction by John Turturro. Watching pros is always worth something.

    Barbara Mehlman

    What the press had to say.....

    CHARLES ISHERWOOD of the NEW YORK TIMES: �It is hardly unusual for first-rate actors to outshine their material.. But the gap between the illustriousness of an ensemble and the appeal of the play being performed can rarely have yawned as widely as it does in 'A Spanish Play,' the ponderous trifle by Yasmina Reza that opened last night at the Classic Stage Company with a cast led by the great Zoe Caldwell.�

    LINDA WINER of NEWSDAY: "A work that aims to be structurally and emotionally complicated is muddled and trivial."

    JOHN SIMON of BLOOMBERG: "Yasmina Reza, a widely produced but even more wildly overrated playwright and novelist, has come up with 'A Spanish Play,' neither very Spanish nor much of a play, and certainly F rather than A."

    DAVID ROONEY of VARIETY: "Beyond her 1998 Tony winner "Art," Reza's work often has been revealed as slight, distancing and pretentious, characteristics much in evidence here. Where Pirandello infused genuine mirth into his playful meta-theatrical excursions, this is a lifelessly intellectual work, albeit sprinkled with occasional philosophical wit in David Ives' lumpy translation. What's most disappointing is the misuse of a fine cast assembled for the Classic Stage Company production."

    External links to full reviews from newspapers

    New York Times