Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Side Effects

Side Effects is the follow-up to Michael Weller's excellent play Fifty Words. Both are two-person plays about the disintegration of passionate but often-explosive marriages, full of secrets and disappointments and affairs and anger. The two plays, and two couples, intersect at one crucial phone call.

My expectations for Side Effects were quite high because Fifty Words blew me out of my seat. In Words, Elizabeth Marvel and Norbert Leo Butz were both mesmerizing and painfully real--and they were so perfectly matched--so it would be difficult for another pair of actors to match their level of performance. (I think their fights on stage were so intense that both actors were injured at least once.)

So I guess I was bound to be a bit disappointed with this companion piece. I don't know how to judge whether any of this has to do with the direction (David Auburn directs Effects and Austin Pendleton directed Words), but I definitely think both the script and the casting fail to measure up. The earlier play takes place in real time, which heightened the fly-on-the-wall feeling of watching a marriage at the moment of implosion. It makes sense for this one to take place over a longer period, especially as it's hard to portray the dynamics of mental illness otherwise. But it makes this play more like a series of earthquakes: still devastating but less fiery.

Joely Richardson is absolutely captivating as an artistic, free-spirited, brilliant, sharp-tongued bipolar woman who can't (and doesn't feel she should have to) live up to the cookie-cutter perfect-wife role required of an aspiring politician's subordinate half. She has important things she wants to do on her own, and she resents that her husband's ambition means becoming a different woman than the one he married, even if her illness has changed her too.

It's hard for me to tell whether her character is supposed to be so much more sympathetic than the husband, but I suspect not. I think it just comes across that way because as her quiet, steely, ambitious but secretly vicious husband, Cotter Smith just isn't up to her level. His performance lacks nuance, so I find it hard to see (even after the play reveals his "softer side") why this couple were ever together. It's not only that his performance isn't as good as hers (she charmingly covered flubbed lines as part of her manic character and he just sort of stumbled), but I think the pairing is just off. I might like the show much better if Richardson had a different acting partner. I can only imagine how brilliant she would have been with someone better to react to. And a more dynamic pairing might have overcome some weaknesses in the script. Alas.

Anyway, the show is only about 90 minutes long. So if you have time, head over and be charmed by Richardson's excellent performance (if not her wandering accent).

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