Amy Irving inA Safe Harbor for Elizabeth Bishop
(Photo © James Leynse)
Amy Irving in
A Safe Harbor for Elizabeth Bishop
(Photo © James Leynse)
It's not always the case that the life of an artist is as interesting as her work, but it's certainly true of the American poet Elizabeth Bishop. In the mid-1950s, she left behind her cosmopolitan life in New York to take a cruise and ended up in Brazil, where she fell in love with the noted female architect and activist Lota de Macedo Soares. Over the next 15 years, Bishop won the Pulitzer Prize, lived through an attempted military coup, and continually struggled with alcoholism. Obviously, there was more than enough drama in her life to make for an engaging one-woman show; but that description doesn't apply to Marta Góes's A Safe Harbor for Elizabeth Bishop, now at Primary Stages.

The play begins as Bishop, played by film and stage star Amy Irving, first arrives in Rio de Janiero. Her literary career hasn't completely taken off yet; she has published only one book and is suffering from writer's block. Having traveled halfway around the world, she hopes to find her rhythm and escape her problems back home, but she encounters a new set of difficulties in a country where she doesn't speak the language and has trouble finding people who'll publish her work. When she finds love with Lota, she seems poised to overcome all of these problems, but her losing battle with alcoholism -- and eventually, Lota's own mental instability -- threaten to ruin everything that Bishop has struggled to achieve.

Some of the play's dialogue was drawn Bishop's letters and other writings. Bishop was an aesthetic and a formalist at a time when many writers were turning political and experimental, and while this style often made her work sound more sophisticated than that of her contemporaries, it doesn't translate well to stage action. Several long passages of lush verse have no dramatic significance, and some ultra-sensitive audience members might take offense at the tendency of Bishop and this production to exoticize Brazilians.

Director Richard Jay-Alexander's staging is sometimes clunky and sloppy. A revolving set rotates slowly about every five minutes or so, leaving the audience to watch the numerous scene changes; the same 10-second loop of world music plays during each of these intervals, and it quickly becomes wearying. In one scene, the image of a telegram announcing a character's death is projected onto the set and then, seconds later, Irving verbally informs us of the same fact.

Irving gives moving readings of several Bishop poems -- including her most famous, "One Art" -- and conveys an artist's exuberance onstage. As accomplished as she is, however, she doesn't successfully meet the challenge of engaging in dialogue with imaginary characters, especially Lota. She's much more effective when directly addressing the audience.

At play's end, Bishop is running back and forth from Brazil to Seattle to New York. In some ways, this is fitting, for what should have been an exciting story about a fascinating and troubled woman registers as little more as a travelogue.