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Elective Affinities

Zoe Caldwell gives a terrific performance as a society matron with some unusual world views in David Adjmi's beguiling 50-minute play.

Zoe Caldwell in Elective Affinities
(© Julieta Cervantes)
To call Elective Affinities, which Soho Rep is co-presenting with piece by piece productions and Rising Phoenix Repertory, a limited run is quite the understatement. The U.S. premiere of rising playwright David Adjmi's 50-minute, one-woman play only runs a few weeks in the living room of an actual Upper East Side townhouse, which seats just 30 people at a time. However, the performance of the great Zoe Caldwell warrants an extension or two of this beguiling production.

Caldwell plays Alice Hauptmann, a society matron of the old school caught up in the perplexing tides of the new millennium. Serving tea, though not a lot of sympathy, she regales us with her rather harsh views on subjects ranging from modern art to torture. That she's able to utterly charm you while rhapsodizing over the bloody confrontations on the nature channel or while scorning the idea that humans have inherent value is testament to both Caldwell's charisma and Adjmi's sharp perceptions. It's doubtful that Alice knows who Ayn Rand was, but the two would have found common ground.

The title of the play comes from a scientific principle, popularized a few centuries back, that chemical bodies are not attracted to each other equally, but choose some over others. "Love is preferential," Alice recalls telling a shocked friend, as she explained to her why she accepts the idea of state-sponsored torture. "I'm with you right now because I'm rejecting billions and billions of other people."

Caldwell delivers lines like that with such flair that it's possible to overlook the fact that she's on book throughout the short performance, or that she loses her place in the script on occasion. She sets the tone early on with some disarming, off-the-cuff remarks, in turns flirting with a man or two in the audience and poking fun at herself. But it's the layers of emotion that she subtly reveals underneath Alice's smartly jeweled surface that really leave us wanting more of this complex woman.

Sarah Benson directs Caldwell with an appropriately light touch and you only think of her contributions periodically, such as the lovely moment when Alice recalls a Chopin nocturne playing at a recent party and, while she speaks to us, the piece can be heard from another part of the house.

It helps that a world-class design team has been brought on board, from Susan Hilferty, who dresses Caldwell in a shimmering but tasteful ensemble, to Louisa Thompson, who is presumably responsible for the hilariously savage work of art that dominates a downstairs room of the house and that Alice spends the first few moments of the play weakly defending.


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