THE BAY AT NICE
and WRECKED EGGS
One of the drawbacks to an author's becoming a hot property is that the demand for works bearing the magic name may force the exhumation of things better left buried. That David Hare is a writer of great talent is well established, but I wonder how The Bay at Nice and Wrecked Eggs would have fared if slipped into a new playwrights' showcase without benefit of their creator's reputation.
The premises of both plays are certainly serviceable enough for coffee-table drama. In The Bay at Nice the 1956 acquisition by the Leningrad Art Museum of a painting that may or may not be an unfinished masterpiece by the late Henri Matisse results in the summoning of Valentina Nrovka, formerly a student of Matisse's, to identify it. This errand also provides the occasion for her daughter, Sophia, to announce her intention to leave her boring bureaucrat husband for a lover twice her age and half her social equal (Peter is 63 and works for the department of sanitation). Valentina, after fondly recalling her flamboyant youth as an art student in Paris, dogmatically advises Sophia and Peter to abandon their romantic fancies of freedom and self-fulfillment. "What's involved in facing up to being an adult is sacrifice and discipline," she declares, citing her decision to give up her own career as an artist and return to Russia with her fatherless child. "Freedom . . . I never called it principle. I called it selfishness." When Sophia is determined to proceed, Valentina reluctantly allows her daughter to embrace her and asks to have the grandchildren come and visit her.
Hare has an ear for dialogue and nuance--for the tension between what people mean and what they say. But The Bay at Nice leaves too many of the tensions unclear. Is Valentina sincerely concerned with protecting her daughter from future disappointment, or does she simply desire company in the compromised life she has chosen? Or does the energetic matriarch seek to continue dominating her daughter, who at 35 still asks her mother's permission to divorce and squalls like a child when permission is not forthcoming? Is Sophia attracted to the gentle and mild-mannered Peter because he is weak enough for her to push around, or because she wants a father who will protect her from her mother? Is Valentina's talk of her ability to paint only "by will" and not by intuition, as Matisse did, intended to parallel her stubborn pragmatism, as opposed to the emotionalism of her "artistically untalented" daughter, who only paints for her own pleasure? And why do these Soviet citizens all speak and behave as if the revolution were more than a mere 40 years past and the Stalinist repression only a ripple on the surface of a placid and stable society? And is that Matisse the genuine article (a point that preoccupied me far more than the interfamily bickering)? By the time Valentina declares it to be the real thing, we have reason to suspect her of willing it to be a masterpiece to save face. (Set designer Robert G. Smith shows us a copy of a Guerin, but he wisely never allows the audience to see the canvas in question.)
By contrast, Wrecked Eggs is clarity itself. Robbie and Loelia are an archetypal married couple, but they're engaged in throwing a party at their sumptuous country home to celebrate their imminent divorce. Their only guest, however, is Grace, whose single state falls far short of a Cosmo girl's. ("I have the most extraordinary gift for getting pregnant. . . . But the pill gives you cancer, so either I give up sex or I have sex and cancer." When Robbie inquires about low-dosage contraceptives, his wife withers him with a sarcastic "Only a man could ask in that tone of fatuous optimism.") As the evening proceeds it becomes more and more apparent why this marriage is doomed and may have been from its inception. Robbie, whom Loelia characterized as a "brown shoe" when they first met, has developed into a reactionary defender of the status quo. The ex-hippie Loelia has been chafing under his shallow materialism and recalling ever more fondly her promiscuous girlhood ("I fucked anything in jeans"). Grace watches the two squabble with the intimate contempt of familiarity and even share an unmotivated embrace or two. Left alone with Loelia, Grace pleads with her to reconsider her decision to leave Robbie: "I like the idea of people sticking together." When Loelia points out that Grace never sticks to her relationships, Grace argues, "I'm different. I can face solitude. . . . But you have qualities I envy. Loyalty. Courage. Perseverance." Finally, Loelia agrees to stay one more day.
The Bay at Nice and Wrecked Eggs (Grace's most-often-cooked dish, which she contrasts with the elaborate gourmet meals prepared by Robbie and Loelia) were written and first produced in 1986, but I'm not convinced that Hare's apparent advocacy of smothered security over uncertain freedom met with any stronger endorsement then than now--particularly since this argument's most fervent supporters in both plays are conveniently excused from practicing what they preach. (Grace writes angry letters to the newspapers under a pseudonym. Valentina has led a bohemian life.) There is also an irritating undercurrent of misogyny in Hare's insistence on portraying males as passive, compliant creatures and women as the ones who call the shots. Loelia initiated the breakup, which Robbie accepts with no apparent protest, even throwing himself enthusiastically into the party designed to commemorate the occasion. Peter shuffles his feet, stammers, and stares at his hands while Sophia and Valentina plan his domestic future. Though Hare may have intended to applaud females by placing them in positions of such control, there is an oh-so-subtle hint of mommy-bashing to his cosmological view. And nobody loves a bully, of any gender.
Director Harriet Spizziri appears to be as befuddled as her actors by Hare's ambiguities. Adding to the problem of how to interpret Valentina's character is the fact that in the initial production Irene Worth played the part--which leads one to wonder how much of the script was tailored to her particular talents and mannerisms. (Indeed, The Bay at Nice can be easily reduced to an exploration of a single character, with all others serving merely as foils.) Gerry Langedon does what she can with this staggering but amorphous role, shading Valentina's repetitious ranting and reminiscing with a skillful subtlety of phrasing and vocalization that holds our interest even as it explains nothing. Similarly, Janice St. John as Grace pulls out her catalog of oral-interpretation tricks and gives us an amusing and sympathetic portrait of a woman on the brink of a breakdown. (She is also the only one onstage who actively listens to the other characters instead of falling into the blank-faced waiting-for-my-next-speech trance that frequently characterizes performances by even the most experienced actors.) Rhonda Patterson displays an endearingly coltish ingenuousness in the roles of Sophia and Loelia, but she's called on by the playwright to do little more than be helplessly distressed. Matt DeCaro is finally beginning to approach the age of the roles in which he is usually cast (he played Juliet's father when he was barely 20). Though saddled with a flat character, he manages to make Robbie into a believable human being with a reason for being as he is.
But technique can only stretch so far. In spite of the hard work of an excellent cast and technical staff, the nebulousness of Hare's epistemology leaves us oddly empty upon leaving the theater--however entertained we may have been moments earlier. Out of sight, out of mind.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.