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Elizabeth Marvel and Marian Seldes in Play Yourself
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
A first-rate performance by Marian Seldes is not nearly enough to save Play Yourself, the Harry Kondoleon drama that just opened at New York Theatre Workshop. It is a show with interesting ideas, an engaging beginning, and what may be the longest second act in the history of drama. Every time you think the play is over, there comes more speechifying from yet another character we have not been given any solid reason to care about. Seldes is terrific and the rest of the cast is good under the direction of Craig Lucas but, by evening's end, I was cringing each time any one of them opened their mouths. Please, I silently begged, you seem like nice people...please let me go home now.

The concept of the play is interesting, if not particularly original. Here we have Jean (Seldes), a former Hollywood starlet obsessed with the good old days, which actually don't sound that great. ("All the nice people are dead," she laments sarcastically: "They all died before I was born.") An unwilling prisoner of her sunset years, Jean struggles to maintain her elegance, moving slowly through a fog of memory and through a tiny house (John McDermott's cramped set is simple and appropriate) in a lilac housedress with great puffs of fringe at the sleeves. Jean shares the house with the frumpy Yvonne (Elizabeth Marvel), her caustic, deeply depressed daughter. It's a grim duo: Jean half-blind and frail, Yvonne a bitter maidservant in shabby nightdress. In this mother-daughter pair, Kondoleon and Lucas create a nice portrait of love and despair; the characters might easily be taken for lovers as they boss each other around, bickering and bantering.

Alas, then the story begins. An obsessed fan of Jean's named Selma (Ann Guilbert) is disingenuously invited to come by for a visit. Yvonne and Jean have great fun at her expense until Selma offers them something they've both been lacking: hope. It turns out that Selma is from some sort of church, or homeless shelter, or something. Where exactly Selma comes from, how she got there, and why she wants to learn to "play" Jean (i.e., to become her for some sort of performance)--all of these issues are murky and are ultimately resolved in the sketchiest of fashions. Selma (whom Jean renames Betty, for some reason) has a dark secret of her own. When it comes out, it leads to the funniest sequence in the show; tellingly, this happens about halfway through the first act.

Not until the top of Act Two do Jean and Yvonne get to meet Brother Harmon (Juan Carlos Hernandez), the spiritual leader of the ambiguous movement/self-help group to which Selma/Betty belongs and another lifelong fan of Jean's work. He is there to shake up the stagnant lives of Jean and Yvonne, which effort Kondoleon shows via what seems like 7,000 monologues stacked end to end. Sometimes the characters do talk to each other, as in the moment when Harmon suddenly offers Yvonne the possibility of love for the first time in her life, but even the dialogue sounds like monologues. It's as if everyone in this little world was taught to emote in long, glassy-eyed flashbacks and grand statements instead of actual human speech patterns.

There is a breezy arrogance to this brand of theater. Look, the creators are saying: the ideas are so interesting ("People hang on to the past and won't let themselves be happy!" "It's too easy to become the person the world wants you to be!") and our cast so talented that we will simply go on and on, presuming that you remain enthralled. We'll continue no matter how little actually happens, how much time is spent discussing things that happened (or never happened) in the past. On we'll go until any sense of urgency--of wondering what might happen now, in the present--is entirely drained away. The plot continues only to give the author time to shoehorn more weighty considerations into the minds of his characters. When the ending comes and Seldes delivers the last of the monologues, gazing resolutely into the future or possibly the past, we feel no satisfaction in her redemption--only relief.

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