Still Life is Stilted Art

10/08/2009 5:00 PM |

“You don’t define art as good or bad,” a photographer explains to her uncultured beau in the middle of Still Life. It’s whether the work is honest. The problem with this play–a stilted, stillborn drama by Alexander Dinelaris, playing at MCC‘s Lucille Lortel Theater–is that so much of it feels so phony. Its overly righteous and unusually frank characters don’t feel like real people, in all their subtextual knottiness, but like too clearly defined, caricatural types whose sole purpose is to espouse Dinelaris’ jumbled themes while they go through the motions of plot and conflict.

The photographer is Carrie Ann (Sarah Paulson), who, since the death of her father (played in sparing dreams and flashbacks by Dominic “Uncle Junior” Chianese), can’t snap a shot, let alone pick up an SLR. She meets not-cute Jeffrey (Frederick Weller), a “trend analyst”–a Don Draper-type redefined for the 21st Century (douchebag haircut)–who’s coping with the implications of a shadow on an ultrasound image of his pancreas. Together, along with the rest of the ancillary characters, they are yuppies making too much money while they let the world turn to shit.

This is one of Still Life’s many themes: that, in comparison to the Greatest Generation’s Nazi vanquishers and the 60s’ civil rights procurers, Generation X’s slackers compose a static age group unable to tackle the immense problems it faces, like AIDS and global warming; not only can they not stop them, they’re having trouble even documenting them. (Contrast this self-pity to Tracy Letts’ lines about the Depression/W.W. II generation in August: Osage County: “What makes them so Great? Because they were poor and hated Nazis? Who doesn’t fucking hate Nazis?”) A generation living in fear, it can neither change the future nor stop worrying about it; its members are haunted, to the point of obsession, with death. “We all want to live,” Jeffrey says. “We just need permission.”

Dinelaris wrote the play following a period of mourning for his own father, according to an essay in the show’s Playbill, and the bits about coping with grief (and stepping out from under the shadow of one’s parents) are, largely, the only honest parts of the play. The ending, a simple gesture steeped in silence, is more moving than the preceding two hours combined, all of the writer’s feelings for his father’s death captured, represented, and summed up in a single moment–in a still life. Art, in Still Life, is the antithesis of death: creation at loggerheads with destruction.

If only that were all that was on Dinelaris’ mind; he otherwise weighs the play down with sententious lectures on myriad extraneous topics, including gender politics—filtered mostly, but not only, through a LaButian chauvinist (a scene-stealing but unnecessary Matthew Rauch)–the evils of advertising (yawn!) and general, generational malaise. In his ambition, the playwright’s focus scatters, and the glut of dorm room bull sessions, reworked as Intelligent Dinner Conversation, grows tiresome. (Dinelaris tries to anticipate and deflect these criticisms by including several to-be-laughed-at characters who analyze art in pretentious academic jargon. But self-awareness does not simply cancel out the magniloquence it acknowledges.)

The play’s structure grows grating, too: Still Life is part of a growing trend in cinema-tized theater. Misguidedly resisting the conventions that separate the stage from other art forms, the playwright keeps the scenes brief, awkwardly cutting them short with abrupt blackouts; the director, Will Frears, uses corny rock music (by Michael Friedman) to transition between the scenes; and, within these scenes, the action often cuts back and forth between different characters in different spaces, often on a shared line or word of dialogue. (That device quickly grows gimmicky.) Still Life is a play that, like Frost/Nixon, wishes stupidly that it were a movie.

Aside from its sympathetic, if manipulatively melodramatic, second act, the most appealing part of the play is the remarkable Sarah Paulson. I first saw her in 2005’s Glass Menagerie Broadway revival, in which she played The Daughter; the terror with which she shook at the arrival of the Gentleman Caller was nearly enough for me to rise from my seat, stop the show, and summon an ambulance. (These days we only need to do that for Tony Roberts.) That fragility shows in Carrie Ann, but the character is also more complex: she is selfish and afraid, barb-tongued and kind, easily slipping between the extremes of generosity and iciness, frailty and false boasting. (In contrast, Weller, who unfortunately evokes Bradley Cooper through no fault of his own, plays every scene as a casual schmuck, whether he’s delineating his thoughts about feminism or chemotherapy.) There’s sincerity in her performance. Unfortunately, it’s so often lacking in the character–and the play she inhabits.

(photo credit: Robert J. Saferstein)