Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Bay at Nice"

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note: entire contents copyright 1998 by Larry Stark

"The Bay at Nice"

by David Hare
Directed by Ted Kazanoff*

Set and Lighting Design by Jeff Gardiner
Stage Manager Polly Hogan*

Valentina Nrovka.........June Lewin*
Sophia Yepileva.........Pamela Haig*
Assistant Curator....Robert Bonotto
Peter Linitsky.........Ted Kazanoff*

* Members of the Actors' Equity Association

Time was that holding an Actors' Equity card here in Boston was the kiss of death, because too few local companies can pay Union-scale salaries, and Equity members can't work for less than Equity minimum. But the only way for any actor to grow and learn is simply to act, so local people often traded the higher salaries on fewer shows for the opportunities to do the work, even for less money. But the company doing "The Bay at Nice" --- all but one of whom are Equity members --- are working under a special agreement; they have self-produced a small-budget non-commercial show "for the purpose of furthering their artistic growth and to showcase their work." And since it grew out of workshops with Director Ted Kazanoff, it's the equivalent of a bunch of out-of-work professionals saying to one another "Hey, we've got something good here; why don't we fix up that old Piano Factory into a theatre and put on a play!"

David Hare's play is certainly conducive to artistic growth, with acres of subtext to be explored and conveyed. The scene is Communist Leningrad in 1956, a few years after the death of Henri Matisse. Pamela Haig plays a 34-year-old teacher with twins nervously hoping to divorce her boringly successful bureaucrat husband to marry a man twice her age --- for love. She desperately seeks the help, but more importantly the approval, of her flamboyantly autocratic mother, played by June Lewin. Mom lived a tempestuously bohemian life in Paris before World War I, studied painting with Matisse but found limits to her talent, but missed her homeland enough to bring her new daughter home in 1921, where they both have had to submit to the rules of gray Soviet society ever since.

The pretext for their meeting is a possible Matisse --- possibly a forgery --- that has been donated to the Leningrad Museum. Robert Bonotto as an Assistant Curator deftly outlines the ambiguity of this maybe-Matisse, while revealing that its authenticity could enhance his aspirations for advancement. Science can only say it may not not-be authentic, but the opinion of someone who had worked closely enough with the artist to recognize his "signature" can clinch the case.

But of course, although that sets up several flights of passionate speculation on art and on this particular artist, this is simply a sideshow. In the main tent two mature women grapple with the conflicting necessities of responsibility and aspiration. Mom seems to have renounced youthful passions, but now passionately insists romanticism is mere selfishness. Her daughter pleads for a chance to be more than someone's wife.

In this spare teacup-space in The Piano Factory (that The Beau Jest Moving Theatre uses for rehearsals) the play softens as it progresses. Both women start out hard-shelled, determined, but with everything bewilderingly ambiguous, and the underlying tensions exaggerated. They dance around what will become their main subject, sparring and feinting, so apprehensive and contained they might easily be concentrating more on phrasing and blocking than on one another.

Then the Assistant Curator provides a diversion, other subjects on which opinions are expressed. Mom sees art as a calling, though one she has renounced, while her daughter is willing to paint as an amateur "to show things as they are". But the presence in the room of a work, perhaps, by a recognized master who passionately gave himself totally to dispassionate expressiveness paints both artists in glaring relief.

Then Ted Kazanoff as the daughter's lover comes hesitantly, calmly into the room, his fedora clenched respectfully in nervous hands, and the temperature changes yet again. He too has achieved a bleak Soviet respectability, but he is four years divorced and only after sixty has found a woman who makes him feel alive. He betrays no passion; instead he is plain-spokenly matter-of-fact, respectful, sincere, willing to accept the inevitable, but asking understanding, if not compassion. Mom's initial blaze of reproach "You want to marry this man who will be dead in ten years?" melts only a little as the two share the stage for a direct, simple dialog.

This is a play that could be rehearsed for years, and in this incarnation it seems to have had intense attention to individual moments and individual characters, but no overall shape. The extreme hardness of early moments exaggerates the conflicts without offering much hint either of filial fondness or mutual respect, so when these erupt at the end of the play they are surprising, however satisfying. Nevertheless it is a single-act explosion of ideas and emotions that Boston actors rarely get to explore. And the fact that Equity professionals got the chance to work on it, asking donations in return for their time, but putting their work in front of audiences this play might never otherwise have had --- this special arrangement for Boston could be historic. It depends on how often other dedicated professionals here take advantage of this new opportunity to grow.


"The Bay at Nice" (till 7 June)
Beau Jest Theatre, The Piano Factory, 791 Tremont Street, BOSTON

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide