Despite the author's absence, Different Stages delivers a fine production
Reviewed by Adam Roberts, Fri., Nov. 25, 2011
WellThe Vortex, 2307 Manor Rd., 478-5282
Through Dec. 3
Running time: 1 hr., 40 min.
As I left the Vortex along with the other nine audience members who had attended Different Stages' production of Well, I found myself wondering why the Friday night turnout had been so slim. Though not a household title, this "multicharacter theatrical exploration of issues of health and illness both in the individual and in a community," as performance artist/playwright Lisa Kron describes it, is far from oblivion. Well has played Broadway and the West End, garnered two Tony Award nominations, and was honored in 2004 with inclusion in the Best Plays Theater Yearbook amid the esteemed company of Anna in the Tropics, Omnium Gatherum, and The Violet Hour. As I thought about the tiny Different Stages audience and pondered "Why not Well?" I couldn't come up with a sufficiently convincing answer.
Perhaps it's the authenticity factor. There's something distancing about an actor who steps into the author's stead for a completely autobiographical piece of theatre, especially when the play is written (in the case of Well) as a direct address from playwright/narrator/actress to her audience. Though Sarah Seaton gives a passionate performance as Lisa Kron, she's not Lisa Kron. Of course, in the theatre, it's usually the case that actors portray characters whom they are "not really." Somehow, though, the choice to produce an unapologetic, fourth-wall-breaking autobiography devoid of the source herself runs the risk of perceived falseness. As convincing as Seaton's portrayal of Kron may be, it feels like a substitute for the real thing. This is to take nothing away from Seaton; I wager that this sentiment would hold true with any actress playing the role but Kron herself.
Yet the same does not hold true for me with Ann Kron, Lisa's mother and the other primary character in her play. Having Jennifer Underwood play Ann in the Different Stages production wasn't distancing – perhaps because the real Ann Kron has never played the character of Ann Kron in Well (on Broadway, Lisa Kron was joined onstage by Jayne Houdyshell as her mother). Though Ann's character provides much of the source material and even some of the audience-directed narration throughout the play, Lisa is the playwright, the autobiographer. Had Shakespeare penned a work in which he addressed the audience directly, recounting stories from his childhood and adult life revolving around a central theme, the groundling in me should have wanted to make eye contact with Shakespeare himself as he shared those personal stories. This doesn't mean that another actor playing Shakespeare wouldn't have portrayed the Bard well, only that authenticity can become quite the burden in productions of self-aware, autobiographical performance when devoid of the autobiographer (never mind Anonymous).
As Different Stages Artistic Director Norman Blumensaadt indicated during his curtain speech, Lisa Kron is otherwise occupied in New York City with new work at the moment. But in her absence, his company delivers a fine revival of her play about sickness, wellness, and the in-between, deserving far more attention that 10 observers in an evening.