Friday, January 25, 2008

Rave Review

One of the other reasons I’m here in New York this weekend (other than the obvious one) was to attend the opening of the Broadway revival of Come Back, Little Sheba by William Inge starring S. Epatha Merkerson.

The show opened last night at the Biltmore Theatre with a packed house of celebrities and other important theatre people streaming past the rope line while the paparazzi snapped and flashed their pictures. I was there with a mini-reunion of friends from the William Inge Theatre Festival, including Inge family members who have been friends of mine since childhood. My parents and I had front row seats in the balcony, which meant we could look over the rail and see Whoopi Goldberg and Geoffrey Holder down in the orchestra.

I really enjoyed the performances of all the cast. Ms. Merkerson, best known as the hard-as-nails Lt. Van Buren on Law & Order was amazing as Lola, the desperate housewife living out a lonely life somewhere in the Midwest in 1950. It was the kind of performance that you hope you will get to see because it conveys the deepest feelings of the character by just a look, a tentative movement of the hand, or something unsaid.

But don’t take my word for it. Here is Ben Brantley’s review from the New York Times.

Sometimes, when she stops the restless chatter with which she fills her days and lets the silence take over, Lola Delaney seems to be staring at nothing in the deeply felt revival of “Come Back, Little Sheba,” which opened Thursday night at the Biltmore Theater. Yet as S. Epatha Merkerson portrays this housebound wife of an alcoholic, in a performance that stops the heart, her gaze is anything but empty.

In those moments Ms. Merkerson’s face is devoid of expression, except for her eyes. In them you read, with a clarity that scalds, thoughts that Lola would never admit she is thinking. Because if she did, there would really be no reason for her to keep on living.

The marvel of Ms. Merkerson’s performance in this revitalizing production of a play often dismissed as a soggy period piece is how completely and starkly she allows us to see what Lola sees. Conveying everything while seeming to do nothing is no mean feat — a rare accomplishment expected, perhaps, from seasoned stage stars like Vanessa Redgrave (in “The Year of Magical Thinking”) or Lois Smith (in the recent revival of “The Trip to Bountiful”).

But though she has appeared on Broadway before (receiving a Tony nomination for her work in August Wilson’s “Piano Lesson”), Ms. Merkerson is principally known as Lt. Anita Van Buren, the no-nonsense police boss of “Law & Order” on television. Her style on the small screen is naturalistic, low-key and determinedly untheatrical.

That’s also her style in “Come Back, Little Sheba,” in which she recreates a part originated with award-winning showiness by Shirley Booth on stage (1950) and screen (1952). Yet Ms. Merkerson allows a kind of intimate access traditionally afforded by cinematic close-ups, when the camera finds shades of meaning in impassive faces. She rarely signals what Lola’s feeling; she just seems to feel, and we get it, instantly and acutely. Such emotional sincerity is the hallmark of this revival from the Manhattan Theater Club, directed with gentle compassion by Michael Pressman and featuring first-rate performances from Kevin Anderson and Zoe Kazan. The production’s commitment to its characters uncovers surprising virtues in William Inge’s play, his first New York success.

I have always believed that in the right hands, the works of Inge are better than their reputation would have you believe. Last night’s performance was proof of that, and I am glad to see that I am not alone in that opinion.