What Of The Night

  • Date:
    April 1, 2005
    Review by:
    Polly Wittenberg

    Review by Polly Wittenberg

    Written by: Based on the writings of Djuna Barnes, created for the stage by: Jane Alexander, Noreen Tomassi, Birgitta Trommler
    Directed by: Birgitta Trommler
    Cast: Jane Alexander
    Synopsis: Can we ever see through the fog of passion to find the truth? Aged, secluded for forty years in her Greenwich Village apartment, a renowned American poet/novelist (Djuna Barnes) is haunted by the memories of her expatriate years in Paris during the thirties.


    Review by Polly Wittenberg

    What of the Night is a boring one-hander depicting a day late in the life of lesbian writer Djuna Barnes. The luminous Jane Alexander portrays Barnes, whose friend and patron Peggy Guggenheim is the subject of another current one-hander playing off-Broadway called Woman Before a Glass.

    As constructed by Ms. Alexander, Noreen Tommasi and Birgitta Trommler (who also choreographed and directed the piece), Barnes is seen alone in her Patchin Place apartment on June 12, 1972, her 80th birthday. Most of the show passes while Barnes, wheezing and clad in a caftan, performs the seemingly normal rituals of a crotchety old author living in penury--typing a few words, chasing roaches, inhaling from an oxygen tank, ordering groceries, ignoring the doorbell and phone calls, making lists of the people she doesn�t need anymore, and reading aloud her old reviews in faded scrapbooks.

    Occasionally she takes the opportunity to recall in flashback her salad days in Paris in the 1920s and particularly her affair with fellow artist Thelma Wood. That relationship, which ended acrimoniously, was the subject of Barnes� most famous novel Nightwood. Having no knowledge of that work and finding no real interest in Barnes� daily ablutions, the only highlight of the show for me was watching actor Alexander transform herself at several points during the 75-minute performance into the young pants-suited Wood prancing around on a bed surrounded by projections of another attractive young woman (presumably Barnes) before, in an instant, reverting to the elderly Barnes persona.

    What destroys any enjoyment of the performance is the gimmick of placing a cloth scrim upon which various projections are shown between the actor and the audience for the duration of the show. Most of the time, this barrier is covered with bunch of typescript letters and symbols. In the beginning, they are regular consonants and vowels. As the �action�, i.e. Barnes talking to herself, reaches its climax, the projected symbols turn more towards exclamation points.

    Every member of the audience at a play realizes that he/she is looking at life through the theatre convention of an invisible �fourth wall�. To interfere with the communication between actor and audience by literally putting up that wall is pretentious and needlessly distracting.

    Polly Wittenberg


    What the critics had to say.....

    CHARLES ISHERWOOD of the NEW YORK TIMES says �When the most thought-provoking moment in a tribute to a colorful figure of 20th-century letters is the ordering of groceries, it's safe to say that trouble abounds.�
    GORDON COX of NEWSDAY says "Not even the impressive presence of Jane Alexander can rescue "What of the Night" from being anything more than an exercise in undergraduate pretentiousness."
    MICHAEL SOMMERS of STAR-LEDGER says "Those who know little about Barnes are going to be mystified by the 80 minutes of endless posturing and proclaiming Alexander goes through."
    ALEXIS GREENE of the HOLLYWOOD REPORTER says "A delicate new play based on the writings of the reclusive American novelist and illustrator Djuna Barnes. Shedding that great-lady-of-history aura, Alexander skillfully and subtly transforms into an acerbic, smart but lonely artist - an elderly woman whose life and creativity stopped decades earlier with the end of a passionate affair."

    External links to full reviews from newspapers:
    New York Times
    Newsday
    Star-Ledger
    Hollywood Reporter