February 13, 2011

The Author’s Voice: Giving Gnomes a Chance

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Underwear, Gnomes and Literature, this weekend’s studio workshop production of The Author’s Voice, by Richard Greenberg, offered the audience a chance to see some of Cornell’s student actors in a pared down, rollicking show.

Having only one act (with nine scenes) and three characters, this short play is perfect for a small-scale show. As the director, Michael Kaplan, informed the audience before the play began, as a studio workshop presentation the show was “in between the classroom and production.” While still a finished performance it had a minimal set and “no dance numbers to help them along” between scenes.

The show was in fact marked by its naturalistic presentation. While the lights are still darkened and the scene has just a moment to begin, we hear Todd and Portia murmuring offstage as they unlock the door. There is no curtain between the audience and the performers, but the play proceeds very smoothly as we see the actors change into street clothes, sneak into the apartment or have their picture taken (which proved eerie and effective on the dimmed set), before the scene has actually started.

To the extent this was a love tale, it’s an old story (think Cyrano de Bergerac and a pinch of Merchant of Venice) with modern vigor. The young and handsome author Todd, played by Skyler Schain (whose prose may be a bit less brazen than his devilish looks) falls in love with his voluptuous editor Portia, played by Alexandra Bradley. Yet love may be the wrong word. Infatuated maybe? Well, he’s at least obviously attracted to her.

However, the novel that Portia thinks will win her new talent so much praise is actually written by the decrepit “gnome” who lives in his closet, a disfigured man named Gene, played by James Miller. More than just the farcical romance, the play is about the conflict between the writer hidden in the closet and the “writer,” a story in many ways about creation and identity.

In such a short piece that is so heavily driven by dialogue and with only three actors, it is important that the characters are enlivened in every line or the scene will get stale all too fast. Fortunately, our three young actors worked remarkably well together. Their interactions almost always felt genuine as they worked around the stage and each other with the most natural of gaits.

In the one scene where all three actors do come on stage we are treated to what are likely the play’s funniest moments, as Portia undresses all too easily, comically throwing her dress up over her head, and Todd clumsily professes his desire according to the script the Gene has written, only to be interrupted by the monstrous poet himself.

Of all the characters, it is Gene who is the most developed, not only in the text but also on the stage. Miller’s performance is truly touching, a perfect fit for his role (I mean that as a compliment). Not only did he provoke laughs where he ought to have, but he was also able to bring across the suffering of his character, which could have been lost easily in a play whose comic aspects generally outshine any deeper feeling and meaning the play holds. In the scene before Todd and Portia get together, Gene professes his wish to be loved, onstage alone. Here Miller delivers one the few beautiful moments of the play, wrapping himself in a bed sheet under dim light and falling onto the mattress to grope his crotch. Not once did his actions appear vulgar, but were instead moving with their poignant longing.

In many ways it is unfair to the hold the other two actors up for comparison. Their characters are far flatter than Gene is, since they are supposed to be acting as the two unthinking agents of his own play. The simplicity of Todd manifests in a simplicity of manners, but that does not mean that Schain’s eyes should be closed for half the play, as tends to happen when he puts on his characteristic smirk. And when Portia is approached by the appalling Gene, Bradley leans in the for the kiss, but Portia is disgusted by him as was another Portia disgusted by Shylock. Both are clearly competent actors in their own rights, but fail on several of the smaller components that will distinguish a performance of such a role.

The Author’s Voice was first presented in ’87, making it one of Greenberg’s earlier plays. Since then it has garnered less attention than many of his other works, such as Take Me Out, which won the Tony Award for Best Play in 2003. Regardless, it is notable as a snapshot of a young writer in the midst of developing a unique perspective. While not his best work, it definitely hints at the greatness to come, specifically during the bedroom scene with Gene.

It is to the credit of the whole cast that they were able to draw the humor of the play to the forefront. The lines themselves often are not as vigorous themselves and sometimes fall flat. But even in the graver moments of the play the show kept from falling out of touch with the larger, light-hearted mood that had been established. It says something about the whole crew and cast when you’re able to let out a laugh even as you watch a certain “writer” enraptured in vengeful anger.

Original Author: Ian Walker Sperber