Annette Bening, a thoughtful and gutsy actor both on-screen and onstage, breaks some exciting new ground with Ruth Draper's Monologues, now playing at the Geffen Playhouse. Working her craftsmanly way through four vastly different characters, Bening – also the production's credited director – may be entirely alone up there, but she is well prepared and, at her best, riveting.
Bening is certainly working with great material. A who's-who of performers have studied – often with reverence – the works of Draper, a late-19th-century actress whose character sketches took her from drawing rooms to audiences with royalty. Draper's rendering of these deliciously shaded characters, with all their quirks and kinks, laid the groundwork for performers like Lily Tomlin, John Leguizamo, Julie Harris, Julia Sweeney, and Hal Holbrook.
Decked out in costumes by Catherine Zuber — including accessories such as Grecian headbands and flowers, haute couture, and hats containing feathers with personalities of their own — Bening is performing the pieces from Draper's recordings, breaking up each 20-minute segment with a quick costume change at an upstage dressing table. Of the four monologues, only A Class in Greek Poise requires extensive physicality. Otherwise, the characters are at rest: the hostess of a luncheon party holding court from a prime table at a swanky restaurant; the debutante reluctantly sitting out a dance. Not that Bening's performance is at all idle; the sheer number of characters with whom she must interact — particularly in the tour-de-force closing segment, The Italian Lesson — makes for quite a workout.
Greek Poise kicks things off with a comic bang. The instructor, dressed essentially in a toga, asks for the current weights of her four students ("Two hundred and fourteen pounds?...Oh, two hundred and forty pounds."). She doles out praise for their choices of outfits and color and then begins the workout class with all the gusto of an early-20th-century Richard Simmons. There is a veritable satiric goldmine in a toga-wearing dowager exhorting her charges to "prance through the forest" at the risk of losing their bloomers. Even so, Bening doesn't jam the ridicule down our throats. This instructor takes herself and her charges equally seriously, and we are expected to do the same.
Pricklier and more nuanced is A Debutante at a Dance where Bening, now in flapper regalia, morphs into a deliriously happy teenager, a few months past her coming out. Surrounded by beaus who offer cigarettes, refreshments, and conversation, our debutante has taken instead to deeper self-examination. She has given up cigarettes as a personal test of character and expresses a desire to learn about herself…at least until the "Blue Danube Waltz" starts up. We are watching a girl who, it becomes clear, is very young, very unpolished, and very much a nitwit. But through the hope and earnestness that comes into Bening's eyes, we share her joy and hope she hangs onto it, at least for the rest of this evening.
After the debutante, Bening moves us firmly into the realm of haute society. The aptly named Mrs. Grimmer, organizer of a lunch-and-theater outing in Doctors and Diets, knows every fad, every cure. She has dragooned a table at a very posh eatery only to discover that her three luncheon mates are, like herself, on diets. As she's gossiping up a storm, Mrs. Grimmer is also working the room, greeting and chatting with everyone who comes into her line of vision. Given what some of these ladies are and are not eating and the sheer insipidness of their world, Bening is remarkable for the lightness of her comic touch.
The balancing act of Doctors and Diets is a cakewalk compared with The Italian Lesson. The piece, Draper's most famous, contains a single speaker: Mrs. Clancy, a housewife who is "studying" Dante with a hugely patient instructor. But also entering that room — in person or via telephone — are servants, instructors, children, teachers, husbands, lovers, friends, servicemen, and a puppy, all demanding Mrs. Clancy's attention. Mrs. Clancy keeps all the balls in the air, never cracking, barely even bristling. Through it all, Bening depicts a paragon of self-involvement, a woman who can gush over the arrival or a puppy and offhandedly direct someone to take the baby out of the trash can.
Just as we think we have reached the piece's crescendo, things get quiet as Mrs. Clancy — finally alone — takes a phone call from her lover. At this point, the world stops, the artifice drops, and we get a glimpse of a broken person beneath.
It's a wonderful, unexpected interlude, and it is as at that point that we hope Annette Bening will not only continue to return to the stage, but that she will develop monologues of her own.