Friday, May 12, 2006

Faith Healer

This entry is yet another reminder of why I don't write reviews.

One of the perks in having a friend working at The Lincoln Center is sometimes you can score some free tickets to the openings of Broadway and Off-Broadway shows.

At the beginning of this year, Christmas Past Marsha Martinez, who works at said Lincoln Center, gave me a pair of free tickets to see Adam Rapp's Red Light Winter. On May 4, Miss Martinez gave Ben VandenBoom (her boyfriend and oft Nosedive collaborator) and me tickets to see the opening night production of Faith Healer, the Broadway revival of Brian Friel's play, which stars Ralph Fiennes, Cherry Jones and Ian McDiarmid (a.k.a. Emperor Palpatine, NYAAAIIGN!) and is playing at the Booth Theatre.

I'll be honest: I'm of two minds towards what I thought (and think) about this play. Overall I'm glad I saw it, although I don't think this would make my "Top Ten" list for the year if/when I compile such a list (although you never know).

Yes, I'm ambivalent towards this play.

(Full ignoramus disclosure: I am unfamiliar with Brian Friel's work, and this production I saw was - and to date, is - the only play of his that I have been exposed to.)

Faith Healer is about Frank Hardy (Mr. Fiennes), a charlatan "healer" of the sick and crippled who travels to small towns throughout the British Isles along with his wife, Grace (Ms. Jones), and his Cockney manager, Teddy (Mr. McDiarmid) to perform his "healing." Oddly enough, Frank points out that most of the weak, sick and crippled who come to see him do not come to be healed (which is a good thing, since nine times out of 10 none of his guests would be healed) but to be given the assurance that their plight is without hope. They "came to seal their anguish," according to Frank.

The entire story is told through separate monologues, with each character getting the chance to tell their side of the story uninterrupted on an almost bare stage. Each character's monologue/story ends up adding to and taking away from the others. According to Frank, Grace was his mistress. According to Grace, she was his wife. Grace tells us she had several miscarriages. Teddy tells us she had a stillborn child. Frank tells us she was barren. Frank's confession reveals that he had to return home to visit his dying mother. Grace's tale reveals that his mother had been dead for years and he had to return to visit his dying father.

The acting is topnotch. Mr. Fiennes, Ms. Jones and Mr. McDiarmid are all excellent and captivating performers. Mr. McDiarmid has the standout performance as Teddy, Frank's (seemingly) slow-witted cockney manager. Not only is he (unsurprisingly) amazing, his character and story really tie the whole play together. (The first act is a monologue each from Frank and Grace respectively, each mentioning their sidekick Teddy. During intermission I told Ben I couldn't wait to hear what Teddy had to say about all of this.)

The he said/she said aspect of the show was also very interesting, letting the viewer both further understand the relationships more and less (since they challenge one another at crucial junctures).

However, there were some aspects to Faith Healer that prevent me from raving about it. First, and this is regrettable, I had a very, very uncomfortable seat. I know this shouldn't be taken into consideration, but it really can't be helped. When you're in an uncomfortable chair for a long period of time, your concentration tends to wane.

And this is a show that demands concentration.

So unfortunately, I was unable to concentrate on the bulk of Frank's final monologue, as I was too acutely aware that I was in searing pain from the waist down.

Secondly, although I'm not nearly as negative as this amateur/reader reviewer in The New York Times, I do understand the "Emperor's New Clothes" sentiment when codename "blairhr" writes in response to the "Best. Show. Ever." reviews:

"We saw the play last night April 27th with another couple and were asking in unison during the intermission and afterwards if perhaps we missed something...Reading the reviews of those who thought the script was wonderful brings to mind the emperor's new clothes....'wasn't it grand?' etc."

There is, to me, more than just a "kernel of truth" to the statement and sentiment above. When Ben and I left, Ben asked me a question about the show, and I realized I couldn't even begin to give him an answer. We both came to the conclusion that it would have helped if we had read the script beforehand.

The reason why I wouldn't agree with Ben Brantley's assessment that Faith Healer is a "great play" is doesn't exactly cover new ground. Although it conveys very interesting ideas (the power of faith, coincidence versus divinity, the cult of personality and the tempestuousness of memory) in very interesting ways (disparate monologues that both complement and contradict each other), they're still ideas I've been exposed to more than a few times before. (I was reminded more than once of the fourth-wall-breaking monologues in Stephen Hopkins's film, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, where Geoffrey Rush plays Sellers playing his friends and family members to talk about the unbridled genius of Sellers being both his redemption and ruin.)

However, having said all of that, as I write this (a little over a week after seeing the play), certain lines, scenes and speeches are still lingering in (dare I use the word "haunting?") my memory. I particularly got a kick out of the story of how, just before Frank would prepare to heal his audiences, Teddy would play a Fred Astaire recording of the song "The Way You Look Tonight," an inappropriate and ironic choice of music to play before a group of anguished cripples. (That each character gave credit/blame to one of the others for insisting on using that song was a nice touch and fit with the overall tone and theme of the play.)

Was Frank a charlatan or an artist? A vessel of healing for the faithful or a drunken conman hurting those close to him? Was one of his final (successful) acts of faith healing signs of his apotheosis or a sign from God that this was the beginning of the end for Frank Hardy? The play is deliberately vague, which makes the show simultaneously appealing and exasperating.

Still ambivalent,

James "Conman" Comtois


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