Written by David Adjmi
Directed by Sarah Benson
A stately Upper East Side townhouse across the street from the Met—a historical society by day—is doubling by night as the home of Alice Hauptmann in Elective Affinities (through December 18), a new one-woman show produced by Soho Rep, piece by piece productions and Rising Phoenix Repertory. Summoned for tea, the audience of 30 mills about on the building's second floor sipping Earl Grey and chamomile, eating sweets and staring at the giant foot-shaped sculpture (by Zane Wilson) next to the piano, where a pianist is playing Chopin. Eventually a door slams above, and the stone-faced manservant Blake ushers us upstairs. On the third floor landing, under three portraits of severe old men, Alice (stage legend Zoe Caldwell) greets us one by one as we file into her opulent living room, where every bench, couch, armchair and ottoman is eventually taken. Before sitting down for her reading of David Adjmi's 45-minute monologue, Caldwell tours the room, greeting the audience like a group of Alice's old friends. "Did Jennifer get into Princeton?" she asks a nodding woman. "Oh good; we were rooting for her."
Settling into an armchair in front of a lectern, the wealthy octogenarian launches into her reminiscences by recounting an argument with her absent husband over the sculpture downstairs that has the audience immediately in stitches. "He's afraid of it, John is," she says. "A few nights ago he said to me 'Alice, it's growing. I think it's growing.'" The ensuing tangent-filled talk—like Krapp's Last Tape for the era of naturalism and site-specific theater—veers from comically recounted conversations to angry and unapologetic outbursts. But for all Adjmi's thoughtful words, Caldwell is at her best in the pauses, as she looks up at us over the rims of her spectacles in the dimmed light, smiling warmly even when she gets teary, plotting her next line of thinking. As she speaks—of a disagreement with a drunk friend about torture, abandoned dreams of motherhood, the "almost pornographic" violence of the nature channel—we gradually fill in the biographic and temperamental details of this kind old blue blood. But her age and demeanor conceal a razor-sharp wit and similarly cutting survival-of-the-fittest attitude. In the play's closing minutes Alice goes from justifying torture to advocating a terrifying type of social Darwinism. The performance's especially intimate setting makes these moments particularly provocative and uncomfortable—like when a favorite relative says something astonishingly racist. Caldwell's closing lines comment self-reflexively on the evening's performance, echoing its title: we may choose to sympathize with certain people, but others earn our empathy in spite or even because of their ugliness. Here's hoping Mrs. Hauptmann will have us over for tea again someday.
(Photos: Julieta Cervantes and Brigitte Lacombe)