review: side effects

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Side Effects

By Michael Weller
Directed by David Auburn
Featuring Joely Richardson and Cotter Smith
MCC at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street
production web site: http://tinyurl.com/3jy2cj2

June 2, 2011 — July 3, 2011

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
June 21, 2011

  • “This is not a wallow.  This is me being peaceful.” (Melinda)
  • “You’re adorable when you’re not trying to be someone.” (Melinda)
  • “Ah politics. Selective truth.” (Melinda)
  • “I’m all spongy and well-copulated.” (Melinda)
  • “All that witty stuff of yours is wasted on a meat-and-potatoes guy like me.” (Hugh)
  • “There’s a luxury of solitude — no one to behave for.” (Melinda)
Cotter Smith and Joely Richardson. Photo by Sara Krulwich, The New York Times.

Over the course of six or seven scenes, two good-looking, well-off married spouses in an American upper class suburb fling accusations, reflect upon past and current misdeeds, worry about adolescent sons, fret about lectures to give and political races to run.  All the action of Michael Weller‘s new play happens off stage, all the processing happens in a well-appointed living room.  Despite willing performances in this two-hander, the entire adventure feels like a playwriting exercise.  Relatives are insulted, youngsters get in trouble, there’s a gun in the garage and an affair in the past and maybe creeping in the present all off stage.  Even most of the cell phone calls that happen on stage take place with our characters speaking to a message inbox. This play provides reportage rather than reflection when so much more is possible.

Melinda (Joely Richardson) is from the American south, once a poet-creator who has now found a second career in social services, who met her businessman husband when he worked on Wall Street some years before the play begins.  She developed bipolar symptoms all those years ago, we quickly learn, and this was one reason the couple left New York City and settled in the calmer Midwest of her husband Hugh’s (Cotter Smith) birth and of his family’s business, where they could raise their children.  Once adventurous Hugh now is a staid, money-making, scion of the family bicycle-making business. He is toying with state political office (it is never clarified why this interests him) and she goes along for the ride because it appears to be making him happy.  But their marriage is frayed and falling apart.

Our play’s depicted action takes place in a stately living room set by Beowulf Boritt, lit evoking passage of days and seasons by Jeff Croiter, with characters well costumed by Wade Laboissonniere.  The real guts of the play (violations of trust, disapproving parents, misbehaving children) are reported to us, processed in a monotone by husband Hugh, addressed flippantly by Mel.  We don’t get A Politician’s Wife (a wife dealing with the political environment and marital infidelity and ultimately taking revenge) or Ordinary People (tight observations of the world in which the tight-laced well-to-do live) or Tom and Viv (exploring T.S. Elliott’s emotionally unstable wife).  We receive one liners for two hours, most given to the bipolar wife.  There are few surprises, and few emotional stakes truly felt rather than reported.

Director David Auburn moves the pieces around the stage well.  The actors are charming to observe.  The challenge for the entire enterprise is what we are allowed to see before us.  The children are at one point in danger but we are almost immediately told they are fine; we are told of a gun at one point for no apparent reason (and thank goodness none appears on stage).  Hugh is retentive and Mel has a creative spark that has been suppressed by society and by medications.  At one point Hugh quotes an old acquaintance’s dismissive summation of Mel’s youthful published poetry as a lightweight Sylvia Plath (who coincidentally also had a husband named Hugh).  Another factoid contributing to the sense of this play operating out of time, and out of human experience.  Floating, as the playbill says, in “a city in the Midwest”.  More specifics, more action on the stage would help raise the stakes and the potential power of this story of marital disillusion and dissolution.

© Martha Wade Steketee (June 22, 2011)

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