The vogue for ninety-minute plays can't end soon enough for me. First of all, I'm too old to sit comfortably for that amount of time without a stretch. Second, and much more important, ninety minutes is really not enough time to explore any human heart (excepting, of course, one-man shows). It's only time enough for gestures that point to significance, and, worse, for gestures that must be familiar to be intelligible. The audience fills in the blanks. Filling in the blanks is not the same thing as making the solo leap to new understanding for which fine art prepares us. It's rather the opposite.
Marsha Norman's Last Dance is a pleasant play, and, acted as well as it was last night, under the direction of MTC Artistic Director Lynne Meadow, its thinness almost passed for lightness of touch. The characters are all Southerners (from the environs of Atlanta, it seems), and the action takes place in several brief scenes during an afternoon at a villa overlooking the Mediterranean in the South of France. The villa's owner, a celebrated, middle-aged writer named Charlotte, has arrived at a moment of enlightened renunciation: having lived a crowded life, and finding herself "tired of love," she resolves to spend her last years alone, communing with books and flowers. To inaugurate her decision, she has summoned an old friend and would-be beau, Randall, and her goddaughter, Georgeanne. Already on hand is her lover, the young and very beautiful Cab. Her idea - an intriguing reversal of Der Rosenkavalier - is to pass Cab on to Georgeanne. As for Randall, she simply wants him to understand, as an old friend.
In the second of her two scenes alone with Randall, when Charlotte tried to explain the appeal of her new life, the stage crackled with drama. JoBeth Williams gave us a woman very much in love with life, and very attached to people, not entirely certain that she'd be able to live without them but convinced that she must make the attempt. David Rasche, as Randall, was equally forceful arguing against her. Mr Rasche all but sang his way through Randall's part, delivering the Southern gent's floridly assured speeches with perfect pitch and seasoned wit. The young couple had a nice scene together, too, when coltish Heather Goldenhersh's Georgeanne asked Lorenzo Pisoni's suave Cab if he liked her direct (i.e., un-Southern) way of speaking. But the rest of the play was a coming and going of characters. Because there were few proper scenes to set up, the mechanics shifted noiselessly, but an extraordinary percentage of the show's running time was given over to dialogue about where characters had just been before they walked onto the charming set and where they were running off to. Charlotte paid so many visits to the local village that she seemed in real need of a personal-stress trainer, and her coy unwillingess to disabuse her friends of the idea that these trips were the occasions of trysts with a lusty fisherman began to look borrowed from a very different kind of comedy. Most scenes were powered by one of two running gags, Cab's dislike of Randall and Georgeanne's intoxication with Cab. Otherwise, the characters seemed determined to get offstage before being compelled to commit to something.
So we never found out how Charlotte inherited her villa in the South of France. I was certainly curious about that, and about the aunt that Charlotte claimed to be visiting when at last she explained her trips to the village. I wanted to know more about the world Charlotte had left behind in Atlanta, because that was really the attachment that she was so deliberately about to give up. Instead, I got to see her fidget her way through the arranging of at least three vases of flowers.
Last Dance, which I think ought to have been a more reflective play, trades on the charms of Southern bluster and extravagance for plenty of laughs. Cab was so full of himself, so confessedly ignorant of what Charlotte wanted out of life, and so touchy about being called a boy, that I suspected his name to be a pun on Callow-way. Georgeanne always seemed about to faint from erotic heatstroke. Randall's propensity for devilish paradox was designed primarily to elicit comic outrage from the other characters. Even Charlotte got to be funny now and then, although this was at odds with her fundamental outlook, a blend of Marschallin-like wise resignation and anxious flutter, the latter induced by the shock of having grasped something terrible about life that her friends were not ready to know. This is what Last Dance ought to have been about. Maybe if there had been a second act, it might have been. (May 2003)
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