In Yasmina Reza’s A Spanish Play, we watch actors rehearse an unnamed play by a Spanish playwright. Two characters in this play within the play are actors, and one of them repeatedly runs lines for her upcoming role in an unnamed Bulgarian play. So, in what’s intended as a frolicsome demonstration of reality’s manifold layers, we’re sometimes watching a play within a play within a play. That adds up to three plays, which is a bit of a problem since they’re forced to share less than half a story.
Have you ever been cornered by a self-absorbed actor rhapsodizing at length about his or her precious craft? If the answer is no, consider yourself blessed and give A Spanish Play a wide berth. The action – or inaction, as it were – is all too often interrupted by unbearably sincere confessions from the actors playing actors. That these speeches are simulcast on the back wall of the stage does nothing to make them any more intimate or even compelling as a metaphor for life’s many contradictory perspectives.
The skimpy plot of the play they’re rehearsing amounts to this: Pilar, a woman of a certain age played by the resilient Zoe Caldwell, finds love again with Fernan, (Larry Pine), a widowed property manager. Pilar’s show-biz daughters Aurelia (Linda Emond) and Nuria (Katherine Borowitz) come to meet the man, Aurelia’s husband Mariano (Denis O’Hare) gets trashed, everyone bickers. The end.
In their frequent soliloquizing about the peaks and valleys of the actor’s process, the name of Chekhov is oft invoked, which dovetails neatly with the show’s long stroll through an afternoon of Chekhovian ennui. Reza herself hasn’t tried to write a bland Chekhov knock-off, that’s the doing of the fictional author of the unnamed Spanish play. But for the audience fated to sit (or snooze; I counted at least four full-bore sleepers the night I attended) through this trifle, it doesn’t much matter who’s to blame or what’s intended.
Reza’s device eschews the comedy that a lowbrow Chekhov parody might mine, but it’s not without its humorous moments. After forty minutes of meandering, a few comic sparks finally fly when Pilar’s nasty daughters arrive for their semi-annual visit, which devolves into a barrage of bilious incriminations. The ensemble gathered under the direction of John Turturro is strictly top-shelf. Pine, whose endearing work in Vanya on 42nd Street places him squarely in his element here, is at his genial best. Linda Emond, who owned the first act of Kushner’s Homebody/Kabul, is often hilariously shrill as the jealous sister to Borowitz’s poised Nuria. And O’Hare, a Tony winner for Take Me Out, smartly siphons a few laughs from the cringe-inducing mannerisms exhibited by actors in rehearsal.
Caldwell is delightful as she oscillates between giddy infatuation and wounded maternal fury. And she’s such a commanding presence that I was reluctant to even think a single critical thought for fear of falling under her piercing, all-seeing gaze. Even now, safe at home, I hasten to emphasize that the all-star cast does their best to hold up Reza’s bland Chekhov-Pirandello pabulum. But for a play (or three?) so insubstantial, it sure is a heavy burden.
A Spanish Play continues through March 4th at Classic Stage Company [136 E. 13th St.]. Tickets cost $70.