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A Spanish Play

A cast of gifted actors, including Zoe Caldwell and Denis O'Hare, can't help Yasmina Reza's pretentious play rise above the tedious. logo
Zoe Caldwell and Larry Pine in A Spanish Play
(© Joan Marcus)
Why playwrights and actors are fascinated by the process of putting on a play is understandable. It's in their best interest to be serious about their work. But why playwrights and actors think audience's are more than passably interested in the actor's process is a mystery.

Occasionally, an intriguing version of the all-too-familiar subject does come along, such as A Chorus Line; but more often there are pieces like A Spanish Play, written by the actor and highly successful French playwright Yasmina Reza and here translated by the industrious David Ives. Unfortunately, this newest work by Reza, author of Art and Life x3, indisputably does not join the short list of works about making theater that rise above the tedious.

The self-involved actors who are preparing what they keep referring to as "a Spanish play" never give their names, although those names appear on a poster that set designer Riccardo Hernandez projects on his sunny-yellow, red-spattered set. All the audience knows is that the five players are appearing in the Spanish play as Pilar (Zoe Caldwell); her actress daughters Aurelia (Linda Emond) and Nuria (Katherine Borowitz); Aurelia's husband, Mariano (Denis O'Hare); and Pilar's fiancé, Fernan (Larry Pine).

Fernan is the one who utters Reza's first terse lines: "Actors? Actors are cowards." Evidently, she means the declaration to be controversially explosive; but it's only annoying, an indication of the indulgent exclamations that all of the characters will make when they speak as either their narcissistic selves or perform scenes from the blasted Spanish play.

Things would be different were the play-within-the-play intriguing, but it isn't. (There's even a play within the play-within-the play.) In the endless Spanish play, Pilar is thinking of remarrying while trying to understand her daughters, who are having trouble juggling their careers with their private lives. The men are either acquiescent (Fernan) or agitated (Mariano).

Since pretension hovers over A Spanish Play like smog over Los Angeles, Reza may think she's offering meaningful observations about reality and illusion or the idea that, in life, everyone succumbs to playing a role. If so, she's only reiterating hoary news flashes. Her cast of gifted actors, directed by John Turturro, can't do much mitigating either, though they do well at behaving like recognizable human beings. At one point delivering an abstruse tirade, the always creative O'Hare is quite wonderful. But the stand-out contributor is costume designer Donna Zakowska, who dresses movie star Nuria in two hilariously slutty frocks that she's considering wearing to an awards ceremony.

Incidentally, the author of the Spanish play is one Olmo Panero. Notice that the letters of his surname also appear in the surname of absurdist playwright Luigi Pirandello. That's probably not an accident. But if Reza is hinting at following in the footsteps of the writer of Six Characters in Search of an Author, the truth is that she's written something closer to five actors in search of a play.

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