Intrigue with Faye
During the action, in which significant others Lissa (Julianna Margulies) and Kean (Benjamin Bratt) sign a 30-day "we won't lie to each other" contract and later agree to videotape their separate activities 24/7, there is a certain sense that Robin has caught and chloroformed for eventual dissection and demonstration the way we live now, the way we are so often ill-at-ease with one another, the way we're ready to inhabit our own Reality TV show. The rest of us might not go to the extremes that Lissa and Kean do, and therein lies the play's huge "if." Still, Robin has written a play that appears to be very much of the moment -- so much so that an observer can imagine someone seeing Intrigue With Faye 50 years hence and wondering, "What the hell were those silly people thinking back then!?"
Kean, an aspiring documentary filmmaker, and Lissa, a psychotherapist, have matured at a time when certain educated people have long since accustomed themselves to examining their every action for hidden agendas. They've also supplied themselves with strings of psychological jargon with which to express their findings. Introduced smooching in a hallway outside their apartment with its all-right-angles furnishings (courtesy of set designer Riccardo Hernandez), the love birds, who've already loosened their trendy belts in anticipation of sex, almost instantly experience ruffled feathers. Once through the door, Kean momentarily forgets passion and picks up the mail, provoking Lissa to utter the play's attention-riveting first words: "I hate you."
From there on, it's a matter of Kean and Lissa analyzing each other up the wazoo as they climb into and out of the knockabout-at-home togs that Fabio Toblini has designed for them. They acknowledge their shared love, but every time they seem to have resolved the particular flap at hand, they find another one to pursue doggedly. It's all in the admirable service of repairing and strengthening their relationship from the inside out. Nevertheless, until they both seem to have shattered their individual illusions and toppled their separate defenses, he tries her patience and she tries his. And before much of their intense nitpicking has passed -- a good deal of it concerning Kean's philandering during two of the four years he's been with Lissa -- the audience's patience is also sorely tried.
Now, about those videos: Because Lissa tapes her therapy sessions strictly for professional use and because Kean has also equipped himself with cameras for recording the homeless people whom he intends to document, it occurs to the pair to keep a visual account of their daily exchanges. Consequently, Lissa brings home a tape in which she confronts a colleague for whom she's confessed a secret longing, while Kean totes back the results of his telling two recent flings why he's stopping short. Thes segments add a sharp fillip to the edgy proceedings yet resolve little for Lissa and Kean, who try to keep cool about what they learn but can't stop themselves from carping until matters get worse. "Question the Answer" is the slogan on a sticker that designer Hernandez has slapped on the side of a television on stage, and the relentless Kean and Lissa certainly meet that challenge.
Intrigue With Faye seems not only to be about the times but, also, a victim of the times. On the one hand, Robin, who evidently hunkered down to write after a failed love affair of her own, takes seriously the little lies and betrayals that undermine romantic liaisons. She recognizes that negotiating absolute honesty between two people is like crossing a minefield: Adventurers must step gingerly. She knows -- probably first-hand, as so many of us do -- that the inclination to spare someone's feelings may actually be more selfish than not and that, in the long run "sparing feelings" creates more problems than it offsets. Thank Robin for the insight.
On the other hand, in charting the progress (or lack of it) that Lissa and Kean make while plodding through their burdened days, Robin treads territory previously staked out by Noël Coward via Amanda and Elyot in Private Lives and by Edward Albee via George and Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? More to the point, Robin dips her toes in water that's also being tested these days by Neil LaBute, who similarly sees the sexes engaged in eternal battle. The problem that LaBute doesn't always skirt and that Robin also slams into is not so much that closely scrutinized love matches aren't pretty; rather, it's that audiences tend to numb-out when on-stage characters go at it fiercely in familiar psychobabble.
It's just this sort of pitfall that can be largely or completely avoided by a cagey director -- which director Jim Simpson always is -- and by a responsive cast. (The original music and sound designer Fabian Obispo and lighting designer Robert Wierzel also help.) Julianna Margulies, perhaps best known as Carole Hathaway on ER, and Benjamin Bratt, perhaps best known as Rey Curtis on Law & Order, prove their stage mettle here. (Margulies, of course, previously flaunted her stage-worthiness last year in Jon Robin Baitz's 10 Unknowns.) The two of them interactr as if they indeed have been locked together in good times and bad for at least four years; their well-sculpted bodies seem familiar to one another in the way that longtime lovers' bodies do. As they inch toward foregoing all the half-truths that Lissa and Kean have swapped, Bratt and Margulies are so vulnerable that they seem to be performing after having had an outer layer of skin stripped away.
Because of the manner in which Robin, a Six Feet Under writer-producer, has constructed Intrigue with Faye, it is and it isn't a two-hander. Only Bratt and Margulies are there in the flesh, but six other actors make what the program describes as "special video appearances." (Tom Houghton was the director of photography.) The on-tape participants are Craig Bierko, Michael Gaston, Swoosie Kurtz, Jenna Lamia, Gretchen Mol, and Tom Noonan. Every one of the cameos is a gem, so to speak, but it may be Mol who cops the guest-visit prize as the eponymous Faye. Playing a TV producer with a nose for commercial properties, her reactions before the camera that Kean wields are simultaneously appealing and off-putting in a brittle businesswoman way. (Reminder: Mol was in both the stage and screen versions of Neil LaBute's Shape of Things.) But Kurtz is also terrif as a wife who can't stop picking invisible lint from her husband's shirt, and Bierko is droll as a fellow bemused at being told by a woman with whom he works that she has a crush on him. "I'm married, Lissa," he replies in wide-eyed disbelief.