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Everyone has remembrances of flings past, especially that once-in-a-lifetime first time. Playwright Richard Nelson's take on that oft-told subject is Madame Melville, an intriguing wisp of a tale now playing at the New Theatre in Coral Gables. In it, Nelson depicts the coming of age of an awkward American fifteen-year-old and his brief encounter with his first amour, an older woman who happens to be his prep-school teacher.
Set in Paris in 1966, the play is a reverie, as the middle-age Carl (the voice of David Perez-Ribada) thinks back to that memorable idyll with his literature teacher, Claudie Melville. While Carl's voice muses, his younger self (Alex Weisman) wanders around her shabby apartment, having lingered after an extracurricular class event. He's not sure what he wants, but he wants it. And in the course of one evening, he will get it.
Nelson is best-known in this area for his musical adaptation of James Joyce's The Dead, which played at GableStage last season. As in that script, Nelson delivers intriguing characters and relationships but not much dramatic oomph. Madame Melville, which traces the before and after of Carl's tryst, keeps virtually all of the essential drama offstage.
Written by Mario Diament; directed by Heath Kelts. With Erik Fabregat, Joseph Kimble, and Deborah L. Sherman. Presented through January 26 by the Juggerknot Theater Company at PS 742, 1165 SW 6th St, 305-448-0569
Carl and Claudie at first dance an awkward minuet of conflicting feelings. They can be passionate about discussing art but stumble when they try to express more personal things. Carl struggles mightily to mask his adoration of Claudie, while she seems to be gnawing on another problem entirely and sometimes appears to forget that Carl is even there. Their conversation carries them past the time when Carl can catch the metro back to his parents' home, so Claudie suggests he stay the night on the couch. After she retires to her bedroom, Carl recounts what happened later: how he ended up on Mme. Melville's bed, then in it. It's best that we don't see all that, but it's a loss not to see the critical turning point, the decision Melville must have made to move from protectress to sexual provocateur. It's not like this kid seduced her; she clearly chose to have a go. But what was that moment like? Nelson doesn't let us know. Same goes for a later critical event, when Claudie takes Carl out to the Louvre. En route back, they encounter her estranged, married lover, and that completely changes Claudie's mood. Weisman does a good job of recounting this sequence, but again, it's a lost emotional turning point.
Still what is on the stage is well-done indeed. This Madame takes on the issue of intergenerational sexuality in all its complexity. The result makes for challenging theater: On the one hand, this is a celebration of one boy's initiation into manhood; on the other, it's a sad tale of one troubled adult's exploitation of a minor. Madame Melville doesn't tip one way or another but leaves it up to the interpretation of the audience. As Claudie and Carl heatedly discuss nouvelle vague cinema and fine art, Carl becomes increasingly entranced. She shows him a book containing a painting that reminds her of her first sexual experience, when she slept with her own teacher, who had shown her that same painting in a museum. As Claudie absently strokes Carl while staring at the painting, Weisman looks as though he's going to pop. It's a memorable moment -- as is another sequence wherein Claudie's hipster neighbor, Ruth, barges in the next morning and gleefully checks out Claudie's latest conquest. The two women trade wry in-jokes about Carl; for a moment it seems Ruth might make a play for Carl herself. She doesn't, but she might have, and it's precisely these moments when director Rafael de Acha and company really grab the audience -- you don't know what's going to happen next, but whatever it will be is certainly worth waiting to find out.
But we don't find out, quite. The net effect here is deliberately flimsy and somewhat removed, a character study that doesn't reveal all it could. Perhaps Nelson felt obligated to present his Madame in the gauzy teenage thrall that Carl dwells in, but in doing so, he squanders an opportunity to present a deeper, more adult sense of this conflicted, mysterious woman. Like Carl, we never find out what happened to her once they parted. Carl looks back in fondness to a mentor; we look with perhaps more caution. This Madame is spirited, but she's also deeply self-destructive. One can only imagine what becomes of her -- but perhaps it's best not to know.
As usual, de Acha is in fine form, delivering nuanced, subtle staging. As Claudie Melville, Bridget Connors is a mess of emotions and caprices, giving a capable and lively performance. Same applies to Alex Weisman in the central, difficult-to-cast role of Carl. Weisman has a chubby, prep-school look that will get him carded in bars for years to come, but he is thoroughly at ease onstage and offers a welcome underplayed, moment-to-moment acting style -- many local veterans could learn a thing or two from this kid. The trio is rounded out by Barbara Sloan's sly Ruth, a one-woman explosion of raucous humor that Sloan brings off with style: Her scenes with Connors are relaxed, bright, alive -- these two look as if they are really having fun up there, two ribald single gals with a lust for life and continual problems with romance.