Wednesday, September 21, 2011
The Habit of Art Gives Us Another Pleasurable Encounter With the Great Alan Bennett
Anyone who saw The History Boys or The Madness of King George (both successful plays turned into movies) knows the singular sensation that is playwright Alan Bennett. We are lucky that the Studio Theater, which put on a wonderful History Boys with Floyd King a couple years ago, has become the theater that brings Bennett to us. They have borrowed from The Shakespeare Theatre again in the person of wonderful veteran actor Ted van Griethuysen - as well as the great Paxton Whitehead from Broadway and Hollywood - to put on a very intricate and engaging production of Bennett's latest, The Habit of Art. Bennett has taken a little from Michael Frayn's classic Noises Off to give us a play-within-the-play scenario to tell the story of the friendship between poet W. H. Auden and composer Benjamin Britten. Where Noises Off gave us different looks at the rehearsal process, Habit of Art gives us one run-through of it with quirky actors and a mothering stage manager. Bennett has a lot to say here about actors and artists. Do we care who they really are? Or should we just pay attention to the art? There's one line at the end where Auden falls asleep and the question is raised if this is Auden, the actor playing Auden, or in our minds van Griethuysen himself. The others decide that it's appropriate for any of them really. Actors break out of role to ask questions about their characters or just talk about themselves. Cameron Folmar will be nominated for a supporting actor award for his portrayal of the BBC interviewer who imagines the make-believe re-encounter of Auden and Britten. (They were friends early in their lives before a falling out.) The much anticipated "music" he opens the second act with is worth the price of admission. It's nice to see the Studio Theater rebound after a so-so season with a first-rate production.