Take some of L.A.’s finest actors, including the extraordinary Shannon Holt, the ever reliable William Dennis Hunt, and Lisa Pelikan, so memorable as Amanda Wingfield in the Colony Theatre production of The Glass Menagerie a few years back. Surround them with a design team made up of some of our city’s most gifted artists, Jared A. Sayeg on lighting and Cricket S. Myers on sound, to name just two. Then, saddle them with one of the longest and most perplexing plays you’re likely to see this or any year and the result is Phyllis Nagy’s Never Land, a production that seemed to me as if it would Never End.
“You are very, very strange, Henri,” comments one of the characters to the play’s leading man. The same can be said for Nagy’s perplexing avant garde comedy, precisely the kind of play that puts me in the difficult position of having to write about something I could make neither head nor tail of. The performances are quite excellent, make no mistake, but I couldn’t help wishing I were seeing them in a play much more to my liking. Whenever Never Land appears to be approaching some kind of recognizable reality, it quickly moves back into the realm of the surreal. Maybe you have to be well versed in Ionesco or other absurdist playwrights to understand what Never Land is about. Maybe you have to be British or French. Unfortunately I am neither.
Never Land begins with 30ish Elisabeth (Katherine Tozer) bathing nude in a portable metal tub in the middle of what the program describes as “the Jouberts’ home, located at the top of a treacherous hill.” Music from a string quartet is playing softly in the background. Elisabeth is reciting one of the play’s many long and, for me, indecipherable monologs. Enter her father Henri (Bradley Fisher) wondering why Elisabeth is bathing indoors. Daughter then stands, naked as the day she was born, every voluptuous curve exposed to Papa, and Henri’s reaction? “You’ll wake your mother.” We learn from Elisabeth, who has finally wrapped herself in a robe, that Henri is at “England Or Bust Scheme # 49,” the likely offer of a job in Bristol his best chance yet to emigrate to the U.K. We also learn that Elisabeth is expecting the arrival of Michael, her fiancé, and that Henri is waiting for a couple called the Caton-Smiths to arrive.
Next to appear is Anne (Pelikan), Henri’s wife and Elisabeth’s nightgown-clad mother, looking like a middle-aged Ophelia, who proceeds to launch into her own monolog, something about a nightmare she’s just awakened from. Henri places his jacket around her bare shoulders, reassuring her that “It’s over my darling. It was only a dream.” Soon, Anne can’t even remember that she’d been dreaming. Henri decides to take the metal tub outdoors into the rain, and when he returns, he notices that his best suit is covered in mud. He bursts into wracking sobs at the realization that his suit is ruined. He’ll never get that job now! Just then, the Caton-Smiths (Holt and Christopher Shaw) show up at the Jouberts’ doorstep.
In the next scene Elisabeth and her African American fiancé Michael (William Christopher Stephens) are having an indoor picnic, as she teaches him how to say avocado, eggplant, and asparagus in French. When Michael asks her about some framed photos he sees atop a table, clearly pictures of Henri and Anne, Elisabeth lies and tells him they are “dead people, and the woman is an alcoholic.” When Elisabeth tells Michael that her home is his home, and that she wants it to be his home, her fiancé (or is he merely her boyfriend?) informs her, “I like you, but hey, you know, you aren’t family.” Michael tells Elisabeth how much he hates her phony British accent, so she begins to speak to him in British-accented French. He replies in English to each of her remarks, then suddenly pulls a knife on her. After beginning to lecture Elisabeth on America, Michael forces her to unbuckle his belt and unzip his pants. (The man wants a blow job, that’s for sure.) Elisabeth, still hung up on Michael’s earlier remark, informs him, “And my accent isn’t phony. It’s well cultivated.” The scene isn’t just long, it’s ugly, and hard to watch.
The third scene opens with paper plates, morcels of food, and photographs strewn all over the floor. Have thieves broken into Henri’s home, or was it Italian gypsies from the railway station? Whoever is responsible, the otherwise very proper Mrs. Heather Caton-Smith hikes up her miniskirt, hikes it way up, and gets down on hands and knees to pick up the mess. The filthy state in which Heather has seen the kitchen provokes her to criticize the eating habits of the French. Suddenly she catches herself. It seems that ultra-British Henri is in actuality 100% French and she’s put her very British foot in her very British mouth.
The second act introduces the marvelous Hunt as Henri’s philosophical boss Albert and features a scene between Heather and Henri in which Holt manages to be both hilarious and riveting, but is this actress ever anything less than brilliant? The third act (yes, there are three, adding up to a three-hour-long performance), belongs to Pelikan, an extraordinary actress who is watchable even when reciting yet another nearly incomprehensible monolog, one which ends with the words “I have no mascara,” apparently quite important to Pelikan’s character. Throughout this soliloquy, and the scene opposite Shaw which follows, Pelikan keeps rising from her chair and returning to the room’s hi-fi set to replay Dusty Springfield’s “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me” umpteen times. Why she does this is anybody’s guess. The actors clearly know what’s going on here. So too, I’m sure, does Nagy, directing her own play. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for this reviewer.
Somewhere along the way, we’ve become aware that despite their British accents, the Jouberts are French, and in fact playwright Nagy was inspired to write Never Land when she read about a French family in Provence that desperately wished to become English. Nagy reveals in her “Note From The Playwright” that the death of Princess Diana brought to the surface anti-French feelings in the British that centuries of coexistence had never completely erased. Though there may indeed have been a family like the Jouberts, that doesn’t make their stage counterparts believable, and whatever Franco-British subtext there may have been in Never Land was pretty much lost on me.
The production looks and sounds great, from Frederica Nascimento’s French country home (featuring very believable rain seen through the windows) to Sayeg’s exquisite lighting to Myers’ impeccable sound design to Swinda Reichelt’s beautiful costumes. Frontal nudity fans of either gender will be pleased to know that both Tozer and Fisher give the audience their best Full Monty.
Ultimately, as heartfelt and committed as the actors’ performances are, three hours with folk as bizarre and downright nutty as these ended up being about three hours too long for this reviewer. Rarely have I seen such fine work from a group of superb actors and yet still wished I had managed to miss the production in which they were appearing. I must confess that by the time 11:10 finally rolled around, I had come to the realization that these were the longest three hours I may ever have spent at the theater.
Rogue Machine, Theatre Theater, 5041 Pico Blvd., Los Angeles.
October 8, 2009