Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith has unleashed her latest polarizing comedy The Gift at the Geffen Playhouse, and despite a strong cast and high production values, the plot strings its audience along, only to leave them high and dry.
The play first introduces Sadie, played by Kathy Baker (three-time Emmy Award winner for Picket Fences) and Ed, played by Chris Mulkey (Blue Window at The South Coast Repertory), a middle-aged wealthy couple celebrating their 25th anniversary on a tropical island. Sadie fears that lately their marriage has grown stale; Their plush vacation is meant to reignite the spark. The couple stays at a resort where mini-bar Pringles cost nine dollars, and they meet a seemingly–in-love young couple from New York who acts as an artistic foil to their all-business sensibilities. Martin, played by James Van Der Beek (Dawson's Creek), is a conceptual artist, and Chloe, played by Jaime Ray Newman (Some Girl(s) at the Geffen), is a journalist with a PhD. The two couples spend the vacation drinking and laughing and telling truths.
The drama begins halfway through the play, when Martin saves Ed's life during a boating accident. The older couple begs the younger to accept a "gift" of their own choosing: "something that matters," as a gesture of gratitude. Martin and Chloe initially reject this offer, but a year later, to mark the one year anniversary of Ed's "second life," they announce exactly what they'd like.
While I won't spoil the surprise, I will say that the gift is obvious to everyone in the audience by the time that it is announced, which makes us question why Murray-Smith took so long to ‘reveal' it.
The juxtaposition of the two couples in Murray-Smith's one-act, 90-minute play questions whether artists live by the same moral structure as normal folk – or if good art is often created at the sacrifice of everything else. The playwright gives the audience food for thought, but takes a long time getting there. She appears to want to shed the façade of decent society as Yasmina Reza had successfully done in God Of Carnage, but while Reza's play throws her characters into the mud immediately, The Gift takes 75 percent of the play to introduce and endear the characters to the audience -- and then pulls the rug out only moments before curtain -- essentially ending the play when it should have just gotten started.
Despite the problems with the plot, the actors truly steer this production, depicting characters that are both relatable and entrancing. Baker and Mulkey's amplified acting style is different from Newman and Van Der Beek's more naturalistic approach, and this juxtaposition makes the conversations more captivating. The older couple speaks to the rafters in a stage volume that makes it clear they're in a play, while the younger two speak like they're at the start of an impromptu discussion on a street corner. Director Maria Aitken lets these conflicting styles stand as they are, without letting them clash, so you can see the ways in which these opposite energies attract. Their differences in tone represent what each couple yearns for in the others' lives. Aitken acts as a conductor, bringing these divergent instruments into one musical piece.
Though all four actors are very talented here, Baker is radiant. She joyously taps into the emotions and the temperament of a woman trying to veer her life back on course: whimsy, pointed sarcasm, aggravation, and the euphoria of falling back in love with her husband. Her voice goes high and airy when she is excited and becomes throaty and guttural when she is shocked. Every emotion registers on her face, in her voice, and in her body movements.
The collaborative efforts of Scenic Designer Derek McLane and Media Designer Howard Werner transport the set from a Los Angeles upscale home to a tropical oasis with very little movement, using moving scrims, sliding furniture, and projected images. A visual highlight is a tropical storm with engulfing clouds and crashing waves, heightened by John Gromada's sound design and Peter Kaczorowski's lighting.
Had the young couple's wish been revealed as an Act One closer, and an additional second act had taken the time to really iron out all the arguments, The Gift may have been more rewarding. As it is, Murray-Smith allows her characters and audience only moments of contemplation, presenting food for thought that is never digested.
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