"You don't want to work with me. I'm a controlling monster," says the lead character to the budding playwright in The Director, Nancy Hasty's compelling new play running at the ArcLight Theatre. The drama deftly explores the obsessive and passionate relationship between a director and his actors--a relationship fueled by the fact that the director Peter (John Shea) is a disciple of acting method guru Jerzy Grotowski, founder of the highly influential Objective Drama Theory, which states that the only part of a play that matters is the spiritual and ritualistic relationship between the actor and the audience.
Peter lives in a small room upstairs from a theater where he now works as a janitor. When Annie (Tasha Lawrence) notices him at the space, she recognizes him from a passionate lecture he gave 15 years earlier which ignited her career in the arts, and asks him to direct her semi-autobiographical play. Unrelenting at first, he explains to her that he no longer directs, and only derives satisfaction by studying the art of acting in relative obscurity. He also explains that the commercially driven actors of the world today aren't ready for his intense psychological method of direction. But after reading Annie's script and seeing how he'll be able to reach her soul--emotionally and physically--he agrees to the project.
The first act of the play is full of references to the Off-Off Broadway world, where a fair percentage of actors are untalented, insecure, unprofessional members of a community which seems to accept everyone. In one of the most insightful and disturbing moments of the play, Peter attempts to gently let down an auditioning actor by politely telling him that the part is just not right for him. But the actor asks out loud the question on every rejected actor's mind: "Why?" His refusal to leave without an answer prompts Peter to lay it on him. He tells the actor that he has no depth and no backbone, that he is a pathetic follower, and that he will never have the wherewithal to become his own person. This brand of honesty becomes the driving point for the rest of the play.
One of the main themes of The Director is its examination of the depths needed to become a great actor. Peter believes that the actor must be the character. He constantly tests his cast members' will and passion to see where their breaking points are, explaining that there is no performance and no job satisfaction--only reality. The irony of this production is that the performers in this show are acting parts out of their own professional lives. At one time or another, every member of the thespian community has questioned whether they have the drive, talent, and guts that it takes to work in a field that buys and sells emotions.
The cast of the show, uniformly excellent, is led by the commanding and passionate presence of John Shea. The wonderful stage/film/television star is clearly working with a character who has huge emotional resonance for him. Peter is a contrivance of performing truth. He has the knowledge and emotional drive to become a great director, but lacks the most important quality, control. Shea is matched every step of the way by Tasha Lawrence's embodiment of Annie. Her emotional realism as the love-interest/playwright is the perfect foil for the director's maniacally intense methodology. Her loyalty to Peter and confusion over his rationale continually clash until her psyche is on the verge of devastation.
The other actors in the cast, who depict actors in the cast (Tanya Clarke, Todd Simmons, Shula Van Buren, and Warren Press), do a credible job of avoiding the pitfalls of mocking their own profession. The set, with its duplex of the Director's bedroom and the rehearsal hall, has a great backstage feel, which is complimented by the ArcLight Theatre's raw yet comfortably intimate space. Hasty's script brings a keen insight to the world of the non-paying stage, and for a while her observations provide a vibrant study of life in the theatre. Unfortunately, the second act falters a bit, with the repetitiveness of the director tricking his actors into truthful emotional responses.
Ultimately, the play may have been better served had the script focused on the regular everyday struggles a director has with his actors. Instead, this subject is given only a mild treatment. The audience is supposed to be affected by the director's horrifically intense deceptions that awaken his actor's emotions, but real life and real relationships provoke feelings that no shock therapy can.