Sunday, August 25, 2013

Old Familiar Faces

The real-life siblings Mary and Charles Lamb lived in the 1800s in London and wrote together. The fictional (but-somewhat-based-on-Vivien-Leigh-and-Laurence-Olivier) Lee and Oliver are former lovers in present-day New York. The four personae share an intense love of Shakespeare. Perhaps more importantly, the four share the play Old Familiar Faces, written and directed by Nat Cassidy and late of the Fringe Festival.

Tandy Cronyn, Sam Sam Tsoutsouvas
Old Familiar Faces cannot help but bring to mind Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, as the characters overlap in scenes and interests from century to century. But the comparison isn't quite apt; where Stoppard connects his characters in location and history, Cassidy connects his in language and sensibilities.

Language is the play's raison d'etre. Combining quotations from Shakespeare and his own blank verse, Cassidy presents us with much that is beautiful and moving. To combine his own writing with Shakespeare's takes, what?, daring, courage, ego, balls? But Cassidy pulls it off, and the play is an aural pleasure.

Cassidy also presents us with three fascinating characters. Mary Lamb is seriously mentally ill; in a past attack of insanity, she stabbed her mother to death (true story!). Her brother cares for her and tries to make her life bearable, at obvious cost to his own. But while their lives as people are painful, their lives as writers challenge and fulfill them. They seem truly happy only when discussing their Tales From Shakespeare and what might go into the next volume. It is an odd, sad, emotional sibling love story.

Oliver is snarky, self-pitying, difficult, immature, mean, smart, and funny. He definitely gets some of the best lines in the play, as in:
You are insanely beautiful, you know that? Like, literally, Nietzsche-stare-into-the-abyss insane. You have the single most perfect ears. These little spirals that would make Fibonacci cry. Even this little thing here, what is it, a scar? It’s so perfect it’s unfair to the rest of the world, it’s almost treason. You should be beaten to death in the square for how beautiful you are. Where’d you get this little scar?

The weak link is Lee, perhaps because she has the least at stake. Mary and Charles are fighting for Mary's sanity and life; Oliver is fighting for Lee, the love of his life; but Lee's career is going well and she's happy with her new husband, and there isn't much for her to fight for.

Tandy Cronyn as Mary beautifully depicts the fear and embarrassment of someone who is calm right now but knows that any second she could turn insane and violent; she depicts the insanity effectively as well. Sam Tsoutsouvas is masterful as Charles; his performance is full of humor and despair, love and fear. All four actors handle the heightened language beautifully, but Tsoutsouvas brings an extra level of depth and resonance. James Patrick Nelson is amazingly engaging as Oliver; even at his most obnoxious, you like him, whether or not you want to. Marianne Miller does what she can with Lee, but having the least to fight for also gives the performer the least to act with.

Old Familiar Faces is ultimately uneven. I would have liked more connection between the two pairs of characters. Cassidy misses an opportunity when Oliver gives Lee a Complete Works of Shakespeare; better, perhaps, that he should give her the Lambs' Tales From Shakespeare, tying the two threads of the play more firmly together. And some important information gets lost in the sea of words, making it difficult to follow the disjointed chronology of the Lee-Oliver scenes. Toward the end of the play, Oliver says, "Know what’s fucking funny? I think about us so often, I don’t even remember what came first anymore. It’s all out of order, like it’s coming at me from different angles." Those lines would offer  useful guidance to the audience much earlier in the play. Last, the show feels too long, dissipating the impact of the final scenes.

The strengths outweigh the weaknesses, though, and I hope the future brings Old Familiar Faces back to New York for longer than a Fringe-length stay.

(Rear of the theatre; press ticket.)

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