Theater for Those Who Love To Hate Theater

Make no mistake: the very things the theater-hating antagonist in David Hare's play Amy's View most despises about theater are the very things that make Hare's play what it is. There are long stretches in which nothing happens. Characters enter a room, walk across it, sit down and start talking. Then they get up, move to another part of the room and talk some more.

Yet it's one of the many masterstrokes in Hare's often windy, often meandering but often brilliant play that it manages to be electrifying and moving even as he calls attention to the very reasons we should be bored stiff.

And those reasons, as passionately sounded by the aforementioned theater hater, are many. Theater is boring and irrelevant because it is stuffy, elitist, old-fashioned, tired, wordy, predictable, chained to the past, out of step with young minds and younger mediums, and slower than the Latin Mass. In short, it's everything film and TV are not.

And that is at the heart of this play, a battle between Esme (Linda Thorson), an aging theater diva, and Dominic (Don Reilly), a young, iconoclastic film enthusiast who wages a 17-year war on two fronts. The first is for the love and affection of Amy (Christina Haag), a strong-willed young woman who loves her mother (the diva) and her husband (the film critic) and who just wants everyone to get along. The second front is a cultural battle that most of us have long since decided has been won conclusively by film and TV. The questions Hare raises are obvious but no less important for that: Where does theater fit in a society where image and visual effects reign? And why should anyone even care?

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It's his ability to keep the play running on both the intensely personal, emotional level and the more abstract level of popular culture that makes Hare's play such a rewarding piece of work. No one's head explodes, but the ideas discussed and the emotions conveyed will resonate more than the last Hollywood blockbuster on which you blew seven pigs and three hours of your life.

Hare's script, which seems a bit predictable and does need pruning, is helped considerably by Mark Rucker's vigorous direction, which somehow manages to make the rather routine world of this play feel exciting. Rarely does a play this relatively small (four characters, one main set) fill a space as large as South Coast Repertory's Mainstage. Rucker also brings a keen sense of picturization. The final scene—in which two actors turn their backs to the "real audience" and begin performing the opening scene of an unnamed play to an unseen audience—is stunning.

The acting is spot-on top to bottom and manages to correct perhaps the most glaring deficiency of Hare's play: you're never sure who this play is about, Esme or Amy or Dominic. But because Thorson's Esme is so good, the question rarely comes up (whether her dominance serves Hare's script is another matter entirely). This character begins as a proud, stubborn actress who fears her best acting days are behind her but winds up an older, more desperate and emotionally fragile woman who has somehow found greater truth and beauty in her acting through the painful road she has trodden. Thorson skillfully navigates the arc, beginning almost Coward-like in her affected mannerisms and wit but winding up painfully real and vulnerable.

The production's best points overcome the play's weakest, and the fact that Hare's play is capable of generating thoughts and emotions proves that, yes, theater is relevant and important—and it can be that way without having to compromise its theatricality by resorting to the tricks of the cinematic trade.

It's not that the vocabulary of film can't be used in the theater. When employed thoughtfully, it can work very well. But more often than not, it creeps in unintentionally, thanks to a generation of theater artists (not to mention audiences) who don't quite realize that their concept of theater has been influenced by how they've learned to see "art": in a dark room on a huge screen with all kinds of visual and auditory stimulation and very little soul or heart or even imagination. Which is why it's so refreshing to see a play like Amy's View championing theater's virtues without even trying to disguise its wordiness, its meanderings, and its love of language and ideas.

Now, where are those movie listings? I hear Reese Witherspoon is in another killer movie. . . .

Amy's View at South Coast Repertory's Mainstage, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m. Through May 15. $28-$47.

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