October 6, 2012
It’s not often that I’m haunted by a piece of theater but AdA: Author directing Author, a pair of one-act plays that opened at La MaMa this week, won’t let me go. The funny thing is that I had no idea what the plays were about when my theatergoing buddy Bill and I left the theater. And yet, even so, they gnawed at me.
Over glasses of Cotes du Rhone at Calliope, the nearby French bistro that just got a rave in the Times, Bill and I tried to figure out what we’d just seen. Then, right before the waiter brought our dinners—rabbit pappardelle for Bill, roast chicken for me—Bill had an epiphany.
Once he shared it, everything we’d seen fell into place and we both marveled at the ingenuity that went into it all. For as it turns out, AdA is one of the most emotionally audacious ruminations on loneliness that I’ve seen in a long time.
Now I’m in a quandary because I don’t want to say so much that I ruin the thrill of discovering its secrets for you. But here’s what I can tell you. The plays are by the young Italian playwright Marco Calvani and the prolific American playwright Neil LaBute, who share a fascination with the psychodynamics of power in relationships.
The two met a few years ago, bonded and decided they wanted to collaborate on a project. Last summer, working together at La MaMa’s artist retreat in the Italian countryside of Umbria, they came up with AdA.
The two plays share no common characters or plot lines but they are symbiotically linked to one another. One might work without the other but the potency of each is intensified when you see them together.
Calvani’s Things of This World comes first in the evening and stars the great Estelle Parsons as an older woman and Craig Bierko as a younger man who appears, at first, to be her butler. The pleasure of the piece comes in the artful peeling back of the layers that conceal the young man’s true identity, and that of another man sitting silently in a chair in the woman’s living room.
The gender roles are reversed in LaBute’s Lovely Head. Here the older person is a man, played by the accomplished veteran actor Larry Pine. He has purchased the services of a young call girl, played by newcomer Gia Crovatin. Their cat-and-mouse game is intentionally more explicit than the earlier piece but holds surprises of its own.
All four actors are superb but it’s the women who are the true knockouts. Parsons, who turns 85 next month, not only looks fabulous but has memorized a shitload of dialog and delivers a performance that is simultaneously buoyant and poignant.
Crovatin, who has the coltish beauty of a high-fashion model, brings a tense energy to her portrayal of a hooker who refuses to have a heart of gold and keeps everything around her perfectly off balance.
Some of the credit has to be saved for the directors. As the title suggests, LaBute directs the play Calvani wrote and Calvani does the honors for LaBute’s. Each incorporates just enough clues into his staging without ruining the mysteries of the other’s work.
They’ve also recruited a stellar design team, whose members have created a spare but elegant production in which each small prop, lighting cue and sound effect plays a significant role. I thought that set designer Neil Patel had made a big mistake with the magazines he selected for Parsons’ character to read until I later surmised the subtly telling reason he’d chosen them.
Not all of the mysteries are cleared up but I suspect the memory of these engagingly enigmatic plays, which are running only through Oct. 14, will linger with me for a longtime to come.