Belvoir St Theatre, March 2
You know how you can line up two mirrors, so the image in each repeats and repeats towards infinity? This play is like that. Director/adaptor Carissa Licciardello’s raw material was the screenplay for John Cassavetes’ masterful 1977 film, Opening Night, depicting events behind the scenes and onstage as a play, The Second Woman, is rehearsed, previews and opens. Now Licciardello has made a play about the making of this play.
This impression of endlessly repeated images is compounded because the play’s star, Myrtle Gordon, begins to lose the ability to distinguish between her off-stage life and her character, even though she feels gratingly out of tune with the latter, Virginia. That’s despite the director and playwright perceiving her as being ideally cast as a middle-aged woman losing her sense of self and purpose.
Licciardello (who did such a brilliant job directing Belvoir’s A Room of One’s Own) has adapted the screenplay into a considerably shorter work, while retaining this thematic essence applicable to both Myrtle and Virginia. Myrtle, clinging to a vision of her younger self, doesn’t want to see this parallel, and, above all, doesn’t want to be pigeonholed. Her grip, already loosening, is made more slippery by her extravagant scotch consumption, which possibly accounts for her being visited by the ghost of a young fan whom she thinks she saw run over outside the theatre.
While the story and characters are essentially intact, much of the original work’s intensity, anguish, mystery and spontaneity have faded. When Myrtle veers wildly off script on opening night, for instance, there’s none of the exhilarating danger there was in the film; none of the feeling of the sudden flowering of a greater work of art than the pedestrian one they had been rehearsing.
Licciardello has assembled an admirable cast, but extracted oddly muted performances from them. Leeanna Walsman is Myrtle, who, with no partner and no children, has made theatre her life, while being in denial about her alcohol dependence. Walsman plays her as though she is washed up from the start, and this dampens the crucial sense of her gradual unravelling. Nonetheless, Walsman’s always believable version does lend a particular poignancy to the moment when Sarah, the playwright (Toni Scanlan) asks her what she thinks the Second Woman lacks, and she replies, “Hope.”
Luke Mullins makes Manny, the director, self-consciously arty and so officious as would drive many an actor to drink, and Scanlan’s Sarah is so hard-bitten that she sees actors as all that stand between a dramatist and a perfect play. Anthony Harkin is Marty, Myrtle’s ex and leading man, Caitlin Burley is Nancy, Myrtle’s vision, and Jing-Xuan Chan is Kelly, her dresser.
Beyond this muted quality (not helped by often substandard projection), one repeatedly feels elements being made extant that could have been implied, to deepen the work. But then Licciardello had to craft her adaptation for an audience likely to be unfamiliar with the film. Already forgivably confused by the play-within-a-play conceit, many audience members giggled at moments intended to be dramatic or deeply sad.
What Licciardello, set designer David Fleischer, costume designer Mel Page and lighting designer Nick Schlieper have certainly got right is the increasing blurring between reality and the play-within-the-play, so that, even without the advantages of a camera, they make us come to see the world more and more through Myrtle’s eyes, with Nancy the reincarnation of her lost younger self.
Until March 27.