Crikey, are these people lonely! So lonely that their solo gabfests function as metaphors for isolation. They're also far from self-aware, almost uniformly un-ironic, and reeling from being misunderstood and put upon. Bennett, some of whose best plays are rarely or never produced stateside (e.g., The Old Country and A Question of Attribution), wrote the first half-dozen Talking Heads pieces in 1988. He added six more a decade later, undoubtedly because the early ones had caught the public's fancy and because he has a facility for tossing them off. Which is not to say that these selections -- four from 1988 and two from 1998 -- are entirely facile.
While beautifully constructed, filigreed with character detail, and laden with laugh lines, the soliloquies also have less appealing traits. They tend to cover the same ground with some regularity. For instance, two of the folks examined are looking after infirm relatives and taking quiet satisfaction in their sacrifices. The title chatterer of "Miss Fozzard Finds Her Feet" has a brother who's recovering from a stroke, and Graham in "A Chip in the Sugar" has a mother who needs his constant attention -- although she'd say it's the other way around, and that's closer to the truth.
More tellingly, none of these figures has a talent for listening to their petty, self-absorbed selves. (An exception is Susan, the vicar's wife in ""Bed Among the Lentils," who having an affair with a newsstand proprietor.) Irene Ruddock in "A Lady of Letters" devotes her time to dispatching critical epistles; additionally, she spies on her neighbors. She's so obtuse that, when a policeman warns her to stop cluttering the mails with offensive notes, she responds: "I intend to write to your superintendent." Lesley in "Her Big Chance" has landed a secondary role in a soft-porn flick, believing she's involved in art and that her barely tolerated contributions are appreciated by the presiding hacks. Antique dealer Celia in "The Hand of God" revels in her knowledge of dates and provenances, but when she learns that she's let a Michelangelo drawing slip through her fingers, she says with a connoisseur's confidence: "Oh, it happens."
Although Miss Ruddock cutely says "joke" after she tries a pleasantry, only vicar's wife Susan -- the one married character among the sextet -- actually recognizes a joke when she hears one, so it follows that she alone evidences wit. Discussing God, despite her doubts that a deity exists, she says: "He has no taste at all." The other speakers, disinclined to make jokes, don't realize they are jokes themselves -- and the unattractive truth is that Bennett is not laughing with but at them. He gives the impression of sympathizing with their predicaments, but he's really behaving like a smart-alecky kid who gets a duller, trusting acquaintance to open himself up to ridicule. The sour smell of patronization hovers over the enterprise.
Nevertheless, Bennett has any number of tricks to keep the audience from noticing his superior attitude. For one thing, the monologues' opening lines are swift and cunning. "I can't say the service was up to scratch," Miss Ruddock remarks; "It smacked of the conveyor belt, in fact." Susan opens her non-Catholic confession with: "Geoffrey's bad enough, but I'm glad I wasn't married to Jesus." Lesley allows, "I shot a man last week." The author is so good at this that he grabs us every time.
Moreover, he serves up material with which actors have a field day. When these pieces have been done in England on stage and television, the wiliest performers have turned up to command them: Maggie Smith, Eileen Atkins, Patricia Routledge, etc. Bennett hasn't been let down by director Michael Engler, who gives his thespians plenty of wiggle-room. If a first among equals had to be chosen, it's got to be Lynn Redgrave. Often overshadowed -- along with brother Corin -- by sister Vanessa, she may have better judgment about what's right for her than do her siblings. Miss Fozzard expounds on a septuagenarian chiropodist who's caught her fancy with a slowly dawning realization that the manner in which she's caught his is unorthodox. Fussy, thin-lipped, and wearing the low-budget but tasteful suit that costume designer Candice Donnelly was shrewd enough to select for her, Redgrave gives another of her flawless turns.
Christine Ebersole's Miss Ruddock, wearing a tight perm and another of Donnelly's rightly frowsy outfits, points and capers to wonderful purpose; line for line, she may reap more laughter than any of the others. Valerie Mahaffey, clutching a flimsy red robe around her, makes the self-deluding Lesley giddily obtuse. Kathleen Chalfant, who never disappoints, has the proper hauteur for the brittle, disillusioned Susan. Daniel Davis is terrific as a mama's boy, and Brenda Wehle's Celia has the right air of self-satisfaction. All of the players' accents are on target, so a special nod goes to dialogue coach Deborah Hecht. (Incidentally, Frances Sternhagen has memorized a seventh monologue, "Waiting for the Telegram," and is ready to substitute whenever one of the others is indisposed.)
Although Talking Heads doesn't represent Alan Bennett at his absolute best, it's easy to see its attraction for producers. Six actors and a few chairs are all that's needed. Scenic designer Rachel Hauck has selected the chairs. The supplementary projections are by the ubiquitous Wendall K. Harrington, who has done her usual neat job but for one immense gaffe: In "The Hand of God," Celia insists that she'd never handle Staffordshire, but behind her is a slide -- repeated five times -- of shelves on which Staffordshire dogs perch. Well, perhaps they make her feel a little less lonely.