Hit and a Miss: “Stoneface” and “Beautified”

July 11, 2012

Little links these two world premiere plays for me, except that I saw them on consecutive nights and each is inspired by, and celebrates, a real-life figure. One production had me leaping from my seat; the other had me squirming in it.

The triumph was Sacred Fools’ “Stoneface,” whose subtitle “The Rise & Fall & Rise of Buster Keaton” seemed to promise one of those standard, clichéd, name-dropping bioplays in which you can practically hear the 3×5 cards fall as the author shoehorns in all the researched facts of a Hollywood life. But Vanessa Stewart’s approach to structure is considerably fresher and more complex than that.

French Stewart stars as the great Buster.

It’s most ingenious of her to careen back and forth in time to reveal the perfectionism, fecklessness, and childhood traumas that contributed to Keaton’s lifetime’s worth of great (professional) and poor (personal) choices. It’s equally impressive how she and helmer Jaime Robledo weave in actual Keaton film clips, as well as clips newly created for the production, on top of live re-creations of cinematically inspired conventions performed live on stage. The marriage to Norma Talmadge, for instance, is narrated and staged as Mack Sennett would have included it in a Keystone comedy; and home life briefly shared with Scott Leggett’s Fatty Arbuckle opens Act Two with a hilarious sequence involving a Rube Goldberg–like “machine for living.”

Buster and Fatty at home.

Always aware of Keaton as a man both in and of cinema, Stewart and her collaborators skillfully employ cinematic DNA to craft a detailed, persuasive portrait. I do think she could have made more of the convention of having two actors portraying the old and young Buster: They have a few brief confrontations and one sweet homage to the mirror sequence from “Duck Soup,” but a brooding fellow like Keaton ought to be even more in touch with, and inquiring of, his younger self. Still, in the remarkable hands of French Stewart (the author’s spouse) and Joe Fria, old and young Buster together made me feel I was learning quite a bit about an artist I felt I’d known pretty well when I walked in.

Stewart and Fria: the two faces of Keaton.

 

I knew very little about the main character of “Beautified” when it was over, but while at the Skylight I learned a great deal about the face of my wristwatch, which I consulted for what seemed like a world-record number of times. I was more than prepared to be persuaded that playwright Tony Abatemarco’s late brother, a hairdresser by trade, was a warm person and fine friend, but this clunky, inept tribute play never met me halfway.

A husband and father comes out of the closet late in life, and a mousy Republican (code for bigoted and small-minded) becomes a customer in his shop and a confidante over 30-odd years. And in all that time, they never have one substantial conversation? Not one meaningful conflict of values? Later on, our hero finds a partner about whom we learn nothing, and his supposed close friend and client never has anything to say about the partner? Or about sexuality generally? Come on. Their climactic fight is over Heath Ledger’s not winning the Oscar for “Brokeback Mountain.” Say what?

Two things bugged me most of all. I am really tired of plays and films that exploit the crazy fashions of the past for cheap, easy gags. In the 1970s, the hairdresser is put in humiliating Rod Stewart drag, tight pants, blond shag, and all, just so the audience can engage in smug hardy-har-har. It rarely seems to occur to directors or costume designers that people wear clothes in every era for a reason, and that maybe the respect owed to characters should include an effort to understand why they dressed in a particular way. (For a cool, recent counterexample, check out the underseen and underappreciated Ang Lee film “Taking Woodstock,” in which ’60s fashions are wacky but never condescended to because the spirit in which they’re worn is sympathetic and inclusive.)

Even more annoying is the way “Beautified” has the customer character presume from the outset that we are in sync with her. Utilizing the world’s laziest playwriting tool—direct address—she’s brought right into the center aisle to get all cozy and familiar with us. I’m sorry, I like Karen Austin as an actor as much as the next man does, but a character has to earn that intimacy. It’s presumptuous and off-putting to take for granted that an audience wants to take a narrator to its heart. At the performance I attended, the reaction to her intrusiveness was pretty much stonefaced resistance, killing the warmth and laughter that seem to have been intended.

It occurs to me that I just used the word “stonefaced.” What do you know, these two shows had something else in common after all.

“Stoneface” has been extended far into the summer at Sacred Fools. “Beautified” has completed its run at the Skylight.

 

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