Sometimes the Protagonist Is Masochistic, Sometimes the Audience Is (GO!)
Barry Humphries is on his final tour as Dame Edna.
Photo by Alastair Muir
When Zayd Dohrn's Reborning at the Fountain Theatre gets something right, it gets it so right that you may be left in a state of disorientation. That something is the gulf of incomprehension between Daizy and Kelly (Ryan Doucette and Joanna Strapp), an entrepreneurial couple not long out of art school, getting by in a Queens walk-up.
They're both fastidious designers working in adjoining studios with silicon and plastics. Jeff McLaughlin's fastidiously realistic set focuses on Kelly's working abode, with its transparent plastic bin-drawers of doll parts, which she sculpts into lifelike replicas of human infants — including skin blotches, tangled tufts of hair and runny noses. There's nothing Disney or Mattel about Kelly's work. She's a naturalist, working from photographs, imbibing various hard liquors and smoking weed as a kind of sanity preserver, though that sanity is faltering. When Daizy compliments her artistry, Kelly lobs it back with droll, self-effacing contempt. That dynamic is the first window onto what's wrong between them.
Daizy, meanwhile, sculpts phalluses and other sex toys with a similar dedication to verisimilitude. In one scene, he bursts into her studio, jocular, with a rubbery, erect penis waving through his jeans zipper.
Of course he wasn't aware that Kelly's most demanding client, Emily (Kristin Carey), would be in the studio at that moment.
Emily takes it in stride. These are all grown-ups — sort of. Though elegant in style and attire (costumes by Naila Aladdin-Sanders), Emily ("money's no object") keeps pushing Kelly to create a replica of her baby who died years ago. The skin isn't quite right. There's something wrong in the detail of the eye.
This isn't just the purchase of an art piece. This is grief counseling via an inanimate object.
Eventually Kelly begins to suspect that Emily is her own mother, who abandoned her in a trash canister with bleach-burned hands — and that, consequently, her sculpture is actually a self-portrait. Emily is not just asking Kelly to sell her an object but to sell her soul.
This kind of transference is, by most contemporary social standards, off the rails. If the play is supposed to be an examination of such transference, it keeps dancing around that issue. It places the gravity of its arguments in the attempt of Daizy — a glib, arrogant and otherwise functional male — to comprehend and even care for a partner who is pathologically, psychically wounded.
The ongoing confusion and despair on both actors' faces provides this production's focus, under Simon Levy's direction, while the doll, Emily and their attendant issues are exotic contrivances to probe Kelly's pathology. The performances are top-tier.
The production is a bit like a chocolate cake spiced with black pepper. It's been beautifully prepared and tastes quite good, but there's just something jarring about it, in those attention-grabbing flecks that you barely discern.
Kelly would feel right at home suffering the audience abuse in Dame Edna's Glorious Goodbye (The Farewell Tour). With diamond studs in her horned-rimmed glasses, the purple-wigged, megalomaniac alter ego of 80-year-old Australian Barry Humphries spends much of the evening goading her Ahmanson Theatre audience. One selected patron dared admit that she lived on a boat in the Marina. Replying to the imperious Dame's remark on how expensive that must be, the unsuspecting victim added that, no, living on a boat costs less than renting an apartment. "I can see," the Dame replied, "from all that money you're saving on your clothes."
Another audience member got peeved and snapped back cattily. "I fully understand," Edna said. "But this is a battle you're not going to win."
Edna is Rodney Dangerfield ("I don't get no respect") inverted and fed by memories of Phyllis Diller, Joan Rivers and Queen Elizabeth I. Edna's a living, rampaging cartoon legend, a monument to imperious self-satisfaction and gratuitous cruelty, which leads to the question of why audiences lap this stuff up. It's a bit like being at home with an abusive parent. Nostalgia? Or is it the mockery of the devices that bullies frequently use to belittle innocent minions? Or some combination of both?
In last week's episode of Downton Abbey, Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton) snapped back at the similarly imperious Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith), "Some people believe that rudeness in old people is amusing. They are wrong."
Well, yes and no — not when the rudeness is turned inward. Regarding her late husband's "prostate murmur," Dame Edna sighs, "Oh, the years I spent with that prostate hanging over my head."
Simon Phillips directs the slightly bloated, frequently amusing spectacle, with Ralph Coppola, Brooke Pascoe, Eve Prideaux and Armando Yearwood Jr. providing intermittent backup song and dance.
Reborning, Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Hlywd.; through March 15. (866) 811-4111, fountaintheatre.com.
Dame Edna's Glorious Goodbye (The Farewell Tour), Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., dwntwn.; through March 15. (213) 972-4400, centertheatregroup.org.
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