Theater Commentary: On “Absence” and the Presence of Understudies

I had the opportunity to see two performances of Peter M. Floyd’s “Absence” at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre. The opening weekend ran with understudy Kippy Goldfarb in the role of the central Alzheimer-stricken presence, Helen. Later I saw Joanna Merlin, who had been muffled by laryngitis, in the role. The evenings’ differences, seemingly slight, were significant.

Absence by Peter M. Floyd. Directed by Megan Schy Gleeson. At the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, Boston, through March 2.

Joanna Merlin as Helen and Bill Mootos as Dr. Bright in the Photo: Kalman Zabarsky.

Joanna Merlin (Helen) and Bill Mootos (Dr. Bright) in the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre production of “Absence.” Photo: Kalman Zabarsky.

By Joann Green Breuer

(Full Disclosure: I directed Kippy Goldfarb at the Vineyard Playhouse a number of years ago.)

My first experience seeing a Broadway show was when, as a young child, I was taken by my aunt to The Pajama Game. She was momentarily broken hearted as a yellow slip fell from her program noting that the star, Carol Haney, would be replaced by an understudy. Ms Haney had broken her ankle.

I was excited to learn that there was such a thing as an understudy, and in a few opening moments we were both enthralled. That understudy was, as theatre lore lovers know, Shirley MacLaine. This month Boston’s Karen MacDonald has stepped in for Cherry Jones in the ART/Broadway Glass Menagerie. I imagine more than a few (who had not known MacDonald’s work) echoed my aunt’s initial disappointment, but were equally satisfied, even elated at MacDonald’s performance, despite missing the star-sighting. This week the producers of Buyer & Cellar announced that Clancy O’Conner, Michael Urie’s understudy, who had received fine notices when he went on for Urie, will not replace him for the future run.

O’Conner’s is not a known, that is sellable, name. Luckily for Ms MacLaine, Hollywood mogul Hal B. Wallis had no such compunction. Certainly, there is no guarantee that an understudy will offer the level of performance as the featured actor, let alone emerge as a Hollywood legend. Often the replacement presentation does fall short, sometimes not, but, despite any rigorous or rare rehearsal schedule, the theatrical event is necessarily altered, and the professional fate of the understudy not necessarily under her control. Nor, importantly, is the tone of the show.

Recently I had the opportunity to see two performances of Peter M. Floyd’s Absence at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre. The opening weekend ran with Kippy Goldfarb standing in in the actual absence of the central Alzheimer-stricken presence, Helen, chosen to be interpreted by the well experienced and well publicized Joanna Merlin, who was muffled by laryngitis.

The next week I did see Ms Merlin in the role.

The evenings’ differences, seemingly slight, were significant.

Staging remained the same: still awkward on the too shallow, too wide BPT stage; the set still shaky with its seven (?) doorways, conceptually justifiable but technically a mess. Of course, the script was in tact, predictably traveling the disease’s downward path with a trope of jibberish, a fantasy friend to twist audience members’ minds into experiencing Helen’s cloudy comprehensions, while family and professionals do their best, which is, conventionally, never enough. Such is the stuff to please the sentimental and pain the cynical. I leave that judgement to previous critics, and here point to the differences in the two productions which I attended.

The obvious shift in interpretation is the presentation of Helen. Ms Goldfarb was firm, clear, every feeling readable. What she lacked in nuance she made up for in accessibility. We had no problem diagramming the course of her illness. She was a resistant mate, a harsh mother, a confused patient, and in denial as long as possible. Fair enough. And unsurprising.

A week later, Ms Merlin took the role. Delicate in physique, her catarrh still causing a bit of a nostril problem, her voice still somewhat scratchy, Ms Merlin’s fragile Helen left audiences members on shakier ground, not because of Ms Merlin’s health, but Helen’s. We worried about Helen, curiously puzzled in the midst of certainty. We knew her end, but not quite where she was at any given moment. A bit of humor here and there, a shift of posture, unexpected warmth, a gesture lost in aimless attempts at self defense. Gentle ambiguity was the sinew of her humanity.

But it was not Ms Merlin alone who shifted the weight of the play. Theatre, after all, is a collaborative process, at no time more apparently than during the hour or so on the stage. Every actor, save Beverly Diaz (her inexperience may have precluded such sensitivity), made, perhaps unwittingly, adjustments for each Helen. It is those adjustments, in concert with Goldfarb or Merlin, which delicately, but importantly, recalibrated the production. I will mention three performances, and then offer my understanding of the reasons for such alterations.

I begin with husband Peter, as the play, post monologue, does. Dale Place was far tougher on Merlin than he had been on Goldfarb. With Merlin he stammered, uncomfortable with his own impatience, his back swayed away, unwilling to face his Helen one line more than necessary. He was far more present, persistent, with Goldfarb. His lines were pointed, precise, his ground held. We always knew where he stood, firmly.

A much more extreme, and subtle, realigning of quality was provided by Anne Gottlieb as Helen’s daughter, Barbara. Gottlieb is an arresting actress. Even nonsense vocabulary could not alienate us from her rigorous personification. With Goldfarb, Gottlieb pushed her frustration with her forgetful, judgemental mother. She moved with restrained fury around the space, warning that she was about to, but not ever, lose control. With Merlin, Gottlieb was a breath more curious, giving one split second more with each critical response, keeping her eye on her mother one split second longer for some inevitably invisible sign of sanity. As she searched, so did the audience.

Finally, Bill Mootos as the apparition, Dr. Bright, clown medic with a banana, a shtick, and a stage costume for every stage of Helen’s devolution. His aggressive cheeriness with Goldfarb would be sufficient to drive anyone to the comfort of a coma, his heavy-handed, lighthearted messages of empty doom effortfully entertaining the guileless even as they grate on the grudging. In the surprise of the evening, however, it was Mootos/Bright who delivered the most moving line of either performance, naturally (pun intended), with Ms Merlin. Mootos was far less pushy with Merlin than he had been with Goldfarb, his volume more measured, his grin, dare I say, less bright.

My only temptation of shedding a tear came as Bright/Mootos said “You’re welcome” to the now accepting Helen/Merlin.

So, what happened to cause the disparity between performing with the admirable understudy Kippy Goldfarb, and the prime cast Joanna Merlin? Of course, Goldfarb and Merlin, being different human actors, would deliver differing, within strict directorial limits, interpretative emphasis. That in itself would impel different reactions among characters around her.

In Goldfarb’s case, every character difference shifted toward the same mode. Each figure – husband, daughter, fanciful – became more emotionally telegraphic, more singularly definable, in the presence of Ms Goldfarb, the understudy. I believe this was evidence of the primose path of good intentions. They all wanted to be helpful, to give her all possible cues of what her behavior should be.

Their trust in Ms Merlin allowed the cast to shed obvious purpose for more obscure complexity. Ms Merlin would do what she would, an unexpected instinct all the more alive for its slipperiness. Ms Goldfarb had a job to do, and the rest of the cast was determined to be sure she did it well, by steering her by too firm a compass.

Trust is difficult to demand. But it is trust which makes a company into a community. We audience know it when we feel it. And so, I believe, does the understudy.

Arts Fuse Theater Critic Bill Marx’s take on Absence.

Joann Green Breuer is artistic associate of the Vineyard Playhouse.

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