Elective Affinities

by David Adjmi
Directed by Sarah Benson
Featuring Zoe Caldwell
Hauptmann townhouse
December 2, 2011 — December 18, 2011
production web site

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
November 27, 2011

Zoe Caldwell front and center. Image by Daniel Talbott.

In the fall of 1977 on one of my frequent theatre-crammed visits to New York City from college, I sat spell-bound through a fourth-wall dropped basically one-woman adventure of teacher as tyrant, power as metaphor, play crafted by a Brazilian playwright in his 20s using theatre and its intimate and evocative conventions to provoke and inspire and disturb us.  Miss Margarida’s Way with Estelle Parsons as the titular school teacher/tyrant, written and directed by Roberto Athayde, changed my teenaged theatre-loving life.  With this play I was first exposed to the power of one person, taking on a fictional guise, working with an audience directly as a group and sometimes one by one, evoking a world and then twisting it slightly and in the process moving you powerfully. While in the intervening years I’ve encountered a few other one-person shows that got under my skin and crawled into my heart in other ways, this was my first that taught me what is possible in theatre that attempts to do more than tell you a linear story.  Theatre that invites you, plays with you, and through dialogue profoundly turns your expectations upside down.  What’s happening through December 18th at “the Hauptmann mansion” in Elective Affinities does precisely this in a site-specific, nibble on your tea cake, attend to your hostess kind of way.  Mesmerizing.

When my friend Daniel Talbott of Rising Phoenix Repertory (one of the producing theatres and a genuinely swell guy) alerted me to a tiny ticket-buying window for this David Adjmi play (several years old but this would be its New York city premiere), I took note.  What could go wrong with a site-specific adventure about a rich woman played by Zoe Caldwell — well, he didn’t have to tell me any more than that.  This playwright I have heard speak and a few years ago I saw his full-length Stunning during its run at Woolly Mammoth in DC.  And Caldwell I have seen on film and heard on stage in conversation (once with Michael Kahn at the Corcoran Museum in DC), and have been awaiting the opportunity to experience her in character, in the flesh.  Waited online on the play web site, and snagged one of the few tickets to the limited, 30-seat house, limited run.  And seated at her right on a small settee, I was agog, occasionally asked to engage as if I were a real Hauptmann tea guest, and I remain entranced by Ms. Caldwell and distraught by her character Alice Hauptmann, still, days later.

The event begins in delightful secrecy of a flavor I hope is sustained through the short run.  We are not informed of the actual address of our performance until a confirmation RSVP is sent to us, on A.H. stationary, a few days before the performance.  (As all performances will be held in this same venue, I hope for others to come the location remains a secret.)  About 20 minutes before the appointed time, I approach a beautiful wide 19th century townhouse on the Upper East Side.  I note other people lurking about and we have the delicious experience of discovering we strangers have convened for the same special reason.  We don’t speak much to one another (though a few others know and greet each other): we have been summoned and are ready to be welcomed in as we are at 15 minutes before “curtain” — by a staff member in formal dress who greets us at the door, checks our names off a hand written list, and invites us to check our coats through the marble main floor vestibule.  My goodness: think the Seton mansion in the 1938 Cukor-Hepburn-Grant film Holiday for effect — this home is all marble and wood and lovely dimensioned rooms on multiple floors.

We are greeted on the ground floor and directed up a swooping marble staircase to the second landing where we are served tea, small cakes, sparkling water in champagne flutes, and small chocolates.  Attentive staff direct our attention to a black marble-y blobby sculptural mass (referenced in the play) in the front room facing on Fifth Avenue, which is occupied by nothing else except a fireplace and another staff person playing a beautiful grand piano. Several minutes on we hear a bit of a bellow from above, a stiff manservant instructed to lead us up as she is not going to come down, and we are invited to climb another set of marble stairs at the top of which is Zoe in character, greeting those who are willing to go with it (and I was, oh I was, I believe we spoke of a mutual friend who had decided to “have some work done”), and genuinely charming the pants off one and all.

We are led into a front library/reception room and settled into our experience with our hostess, some of us quite close to her, others around the edges of the small room.  And Ms. Caldwell, on book (by design or by choice, who cares) takes us into the world of the pampered and powerful Alice, whose beliefs we learn can disturb her husband and her friend, who lives the concept of “elective affinities” in absolute and quite concrete terms.  Once in a lifetime.

© Martha Wade Steketee (December 2, 2011)

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