Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Review of The Gift: Comedy or Morality Play?

The Gift is a play in one act by Joanna Murray-Smith. Directed by Maria Aitken.

Sadie -- Kathy Baker
Ed -- Chris Mulkey
Chloe -- Jaime Ray Newman
Martin -- James Van Der Beek 
We hustled into the Geffen Playhouse last Saturday night just as the last people were being seated. “What’s this play about?” my husband asked. I didn’t have a clue. Two couples meet at a resort I had time to read in the playbill before the lights dimmed. 
And, oh what couples they were. I’ve met them before at cocktail parties. Sadie and Ed, wealthy and from L.A., are celebrating their 25th anniversary. Sadie laments their settled ways and loss of passion. Ed either hasn’t noticed, or he accepts it, and they both distract themselves with a frothy consumerism. The other couple, Martin and Chloe, are still in love after eight years of marriage. They're settled in New York, and are open, not in the least condescending toward this older couple with whom, at first glance, they have nothing in common.

Twist # 1: Although suburban and traditional, Sadie and Ed have no children. Martin and Chloe are entrenched in the Manhattan art scene: they have a four-year-old daughter.

            The four amuse themselves through a night of champagne, wine and mojitos. Sexual innuendoes pop up, but thank goodness no one does anything about them because I want to be surprised. With all that alcohol, they promise to be honest, and to always tell the truth to one another. Both couples appear to be decent, well-meaning people.  Ed is voluble, as is Sadie.  Chloe opens up more as the night progresses, but Martin is removed, reticent: he holds back.  They discuss jazz, which is an abstract artform Ed understands, the subtleties of wine, raising a child in the modern world, and conceptual art.

con·cep·tu·al art  
Art in which the idea presented by the artist is considered more important than the finished product, if any exists.
            Ed, who earned his fortune with woodworking machines, asks Martin about his latest work: it's a giant glass cube with a hologram of a child inside it which will be on display at Tate Modern. “Did you make the Cube?” Ed asks.  Martin hired a team to build it, because it's the idea behind it that's important (see definition above and think of the LACMA rock, also known as the Levitated Mass).  The couples plan a sailing outing the next day.  In a dramatic boating accident, Martin saves Ed's life. 

            It's a life-altering event for everyone: a second chance. Ed wants to do something for Martin. A gift is promised if only Martin and Chloe will name it. They plan a reunion in one year.

Twist #2: They meet in L.A., and each couple reveals their narcissistic side.  

            All of them want a redo, to turn their lives back to a point where they found joy, not only in each other, but in their dreams and aspirations.  Sadie and Ed's passion for life and each other has been reinvigorated, and Chloe and Martin discovered a new truth about themselves. Chloe leads the way with a heart-warming story about their fostering of a dog that they come to love. The dog returns to its owner. Chloe and Martin are sad, even try to find loopholes which would allow them to keep the dog.

            Then . . .  they get over it, even feel relief that the pressure is off. The pressure of responsibility, or the pressure of love?  What's this have to do with the Gift, you might be wondering.  Martin becomes loquacious in revealing what they want, a trait which he had exhibited previously only when discussing conceptual art.

Twist #3: Martin and Chloe want to give their kid to Sadie and Ed.

con·cep·tu·al mo·ral·i·ty

Morality in which an idea or behavior is neither good nor bad, right or wrong, but is validated by the outcome, if one exists.

            Martin and Chloe love their daughter, but don't think they're good parents. What it boils down to is that they're just not in the moment with her.  The idea of her is more real to them than the flesh and blood kid.  That person is boring.  A child as art is more important to them than the child herself, and they know this is wrong . . . and not just for their child, but for them, as well.  Ed gets all bent out of shape because this is not a normal request, not traditional, not right!  Yet, his character is one I can imagine saying that some people should get a license to have children, or shouldn't have had them, or should of given them to a more responsible set of parents.
            In an attempt to calm him down, Sadie' reminds him of the time when she became pregnant at age 18. “We were too young to have children,” Ed says. My understanding is that their one chance at parenthood was a joint decision not to go there. They had made a choice that some people would abhor.  Quiet reigned on the set and in the audience.

Twist #4: Nothing is resolved.

            The last backdrop is a visual of that glass box with the child inside. We are left to think either in the box or outside of it.  The ending prompts the wish that the glass around the perfect child will be broken with Ed and Sadie.

            A promo on the Geffen website for this play reads "Murray-Smith has Oscar Wilde's gift for one-liners." Sounds like a comedy, doesn’t it?  While there are plenty of laughs while they’re at the resort, I'd argue that The Gift is less a comedy and more a morality play.

            The actors were outstanding.  Derek McLane (scenes) and Howard Werner (media) designed the sets which are superbly minimalist: L.A. skyline, beach sunsets, and even the storm so that the emphasis was on the actors. John Gromada, sound design, and Peter Kaczorowski, lighting, also added to the drama without overwhelming it.

Conceptual Art Exposed:

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