Watching The Year of Magical Thinking on Broadway actually reaffirmed my faith in the power of theatre. Being a jaded New Yorker and former actor, It’s rare my assumptions about the art form are shaken to the core. Not to say I don’t enjoy going to plays anymore, I’m a great audience member–I’m like a retarded kid on a field trip–just happy to be out and about. Yay lights! Yay costumes! Laugh, clap, and curtain. End of play. I’ve seen performances that have moved me, amused me, disturbed me, annoyed the shit out of me (ask me about Tapes Last Crap), and even delighted me. I’ve seen some of the great actors of our day treading the boards: Kevin Spacey, Christine Ebersole, Liev Schreiber, Kevin Kline (off the top of my head). But it’s a rare occurrence these days that script and star mesh in a way that’s so organic, so seamless, that it feels like it sprung forth, fully formed, a divine occurrence. Too often, the director’s imprint is too present; you can practically see a giant hand moving the actors around the stage. Not so “Magical Thinking.”
Granted, I didn’t stumble into this show blind. I’m a Didion devotee, a rabid fan, and I devoured the book when it came out. Still, a stage version of her meditation on grief and loss could have gone a hundred different ways of wrong. How many adaptations have suffered in translation, losing the essential quality that made them special in the first place? Luckily, Didion adapted the book herself (her first play!) and it was directed by David Hare (no slouch in the playwrighting/directing/one-person show department) and acted by the legendary Vanessa Redgrave.
On Redgrave: saying she acted the part is a falsity. To say she “embodied the role,” that old trope, is a lazy disservice to her performance. Redgrave conjured her role from some place not of this world, bringing a transcendent vitality, an immediacy that was so powerful to look away was impossible. She transfixed, she was elemental, she suffused every word, every gesture, with an urgency, a poignancy, that was breathtaking. Which, I suppose, is the point I’m trying to make about theatre; there, on a practically bare stage, with nothing but her being and the words she spoke, she made the story vital. I’ve studied enough theatre history (worthless B.F.A., bah!) to have been inundated with the “origins of theatre” and all that you need–an actor, an audience, a space–to know that this show, with Redgrave seated in a chair for the first hour of the intermission-less hour and forty minutes, recaptured the core of drama. As Didion needed to write the book to come to terms with her experience, so Redgrave made the need to tell the story to the audience urgent.
If I’m waxing too fervidly about the power of her performance, well, like I said, I’m rarely that transported. Magic seemed to be the key tenet of the evening, Redgrave was an enchantress, a conjure woman. At one point, she stood and the lights dimmed, the chair she’d occupied disapeared from the stage. I did not see it go. At another, she referred to the book she, as the Didion character ,wrote, and reached behind her back and pulled it out. From where I do not know. True stage magic. She earned, beyond doubt, her instantaneous and warm standing ovation and second curtain call. After the emotional and dextrously verbal pyrotechics she supplied, I, like the audience member next to me, was reduced to a monosyllabic “wow” to convey my feelings. Just as Didion, in her twilight years, is at the height of her power with the book and now the play, so Redgrave the actress, seasoned by time and experience, is at the height of hers.
The first few minutes are an adjustment, like watching Shakespeare or Moliere, as the author’s cadences and rhythms take hold, but soon the text is ingrained, and you’re hungry for more. Phrases loop and repeat, become mantras, incantations, questions to the universe. Time collapses, expands, and crystallizes. Like life. Lest you think a play about the death of a husband and a daughter is all tears and chest-thumping, it isn’t. It’s wry, with moments of absurd comedy. Not quite gallows humor, but closer to the hysterical grief that causes people to laugh during a funeral.
Ultimately what makes the play work is its truth: an examination of grief and its vagaries leads to the affirmation of life. Redgrave’s intense, vivid humanity made the experience more like religion, again returning to the origins of theatre . Seeing her, a capital “A” actress, made me want to destroy half the IMDb profiles of so many emaciated, cap-teethed charlatans to whom that label is applied.
Judging by the overwhelming hype and long line to get into the Booth Theater, the show doesn’t need my praises to get attention, it’s one of the hot tickets of the season. If only more of the so-called “hot tickets” offered the brilliance and humanity of this production, perhaps the old refrain “theatre is a dying art form” would finally be laid to rest.