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 Richard Nelson; directed by Rafael de Acha. With Bridget Connors, Barbara Sloan, and Alex Weisman. Presented through February 2 at New Theatre, 4120 Laguna St, Coral Gables, 305-443-5909.
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.
The problem with this fine cast is that it doesn't quite mesh with the play's demands, at least automatically. Both the female characters feel like women in their thirties, while Carl seems like a boy teetering on manhood. (The London cast featured Macaulay Culkin and Irene Jacob.) This New Theatre cast spans a somewhat wider age range. Not a problem in itself, but if this Mme. Melville is interested in this Carl, what is it exactly about him that gets her going? De Acha hasn't solved this problem; he pretty much just leaves the sex appeal as a given. This was also his strategy in Anna in the Tropics, in which sexual fireworks kicked off without much clear reason why. That's a cavil, though, in a production that's another little pearl in a string of fine productions. The New Theatre is tiny in size but not in scope and has come a long, long way in the past few seasons. Those who haven't sampled this company's wares might do well to get over there right now.
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Meanwhile, the Juggerknot Theater is presenting Houseguest, Mario Diament's play that purports to be a comedy of menace but offers little of either. The production features an array of local talent, but the result is so ghastly, this revival might better be called an exhumation. The story has to do with a milquetoast stockbroker, Lucio, and his sex-starved wife, Nora, who devotes herself to caring for her elderly, wheelchair-bound Papa, who is completely disabled by a stroke. This bourgeois ménage is upended by a clever, disturbing housepainter who moves in, has sex with the wife, manipulates the husband, and bad-mouths both behind their backs. Written in 1979, the rarely produced script aims for the black-comedic style of British provocateur Joe Orton but feels derivative, obvious, and dated. The Argentine-born, locally based Diament has acquired a well-deserved acclaim based on his Smithereens and The Book of Ruth, both recently produced at the New Theatre, but if he wants to maintain his reputation, he would be advised to keep such early work as this to himself.
Script problems aside, the production is a misfire. Heath Kelts directs with little insight or invention, opting for a broad, comedic style that insists on endless variations of horny-housewife shtick, a ploy that grows tedious after ten minutes. Deborah L. Sherman as the voluptuous Nora and Joseph Kimble as sad-sack Lucio give a game try, but neither has the resources to hold the stage. As the intrusive houseguest, Erik Fabregat adds energy, but his take on the role is a two-hour impersonation of Paul Tei. The silent role of Papa is played by a dummy in a wheelchair, a performance that starts to look pretty good by intermission.
Production elements also stumble. Set designer Chris Jahn apparently never got the word from Kelts on the directorial concept: The thrift-store realism of the apartment setting has zero to do with the cartoonish acting style. Meanwhile award-winning lighting designer Travis Neff, usually so resourceful, could have lighted this show just as well had he pulled up his car and flipped on the high beams. How this car crash of a show came to be may be chalked up to the accidents of creative collaboration. Certainly all involved can be expected to get back on track in the future, as each will soon deliver new work in other upcoming area productions. But for now, this Houseguest is one visitor you will want to avoid.