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Defying Expectations

July 11, 2007

Fine actors turn a dated comedy about psychotherapy into something worth seeing

A friend recently asked me why I would bother reviewing Aurora Theatre Company's production of John Guare's Bosoms and Neglect. He had a point. Theatrically speaking, we're pretty spoiled here in the Bay Area with a near-constant parade of world premieres, experimental work by edgy up-and-comers, and splashy shows by established names. Where does a smallish production of a neglected 1979 comedy about psychotherapy by one of this country's most populist playwrights fit into a critic's hectic schedule when there's so much more rewarding fare out there? What could Guare's bell-bottoms-wearing cast of Woody Allen-esque neurotics possibly have to say to us?

But despite the fact that Guare's self-involved, fussy-quirky characters and farcical plot lines generally don't hold much appeal for me, I had a good reason for not neglecting Bosoms and Neglect. I wanted to see the actors. The three performers in Joy Carlin's production — Joan Mankin, Cassidy Brown, and Beth Wilmurt — are captivating to watch. What I wasn't expecting was to leave the theater having changed my mind about Guare's play.

At one level, Bosoms and Neglect tells the story of a bunch of Upper East Side head cases and their feeble attempts at survival in a pre-Prozac world. Stressed computer analyst Scooper (Brown) spends three days a week on New York psychotherapist Dr. Virgil James' couch. He appears to have met his true match when he encounters a beautiful bookseller by the name of Deirdre (Wilmurt) in a bookstore one summer's day. Not only are the two New Yorkers united in their love of literature, but they also share an obsession with therapy — Deirdre, too, is a patient of Dr. James with a staggering five-day-a-week couch habit. The two go to Deirdre's apartment to drink and chat with comically disastrous results. With Scooper's sick and suicidal 83-year-old mother (Mankin) having taken a turn for the worse at the start of the play, all three characters unwittingly find themselves thrown together on the same hospital ward where they attempt to make sense of their neuroses and lives.

At another level, the comedy is about something much more interesting than late-1970s views about psychotherapy. Carlin and her smart cast show us a side of the play that I hadn't noticed before — namely, the role of the author and the power of fiction. Thanks to the dexterity of the performances — from Wilmurt's subtle physicality, to Brown's acute way with text, to Mankin's expert comic timing — the production breaks through the superficial surface of the characters' oddball conditions to excavate Guare's lines in surprising ways. From the Holden Caulfield-obsessed Paul in Six Degrees of Separation to the zookeeper in The House of Blue Leaves who dreams of hitting the big time as a songwriter in Hollywood and has a wife named Bananas, Guare's characters are notoriously quirk-infested. When faced with characters who wave statues of St. Jude around, use Joseph Conrad novels as sex aids, and are proud of going to therapy five days a week, lesser actors would most likely use the many idiosyncrasies that pepper Bosoms and Neglect as crutches upon which to limp their way through a performance. But Mankin, Brown, and Wilmurt embody these traits as if they are everyday parts of themselves. The skill of these performances is that they make all three characters seem so normal.

Well, normal to a point. The cracks start to show, albeit with marked subtlety, from the very beginning. Wilmurt is particularly expert at giving us an insight into her mounting stress and discomfiture. While Scooper drones on about his sex life, Deirdre can't stay still. At one point she jiggles a leg. At another, she balances a book on her head. When she can't take any more, she throws her head and arms back in exasperation. The most intriguing thing is that all these gestures feel like instinctual reactions rather than learned behaviors in service of a scene in a play.

Both Wilmurt and Brown give extremely physical performances — a fight scene sees them flailing bombastically across couches and piles of books — but we experience most of Brown's character's torments through language rather than the body. Scooper has most of the lines in the play and the character's surface confidence comes across through the actor's employment of a nasal, New Yorker accent. He belts out smug one-liners with the showmanship and bravura of a Victorian fairground barker. But Scooper's vulnerability and anger also come through in the more unadorned delivery of Guare's darker lines. "You become sane much quicker than you go mad," he says at one point, with matter-of-fact lucidity.

It is chiefly as a result of Mankin's performance as the blind old matriarch, Henny, that the play's alternate meanings rise to the surface. When we first encounter Henny at the start of the play, she appears to be on the brink of destruction. Raving against an unflattering backdrop of mottled, violet light about Kotex, St. Jude, and her failing bladder with wild hair and even wilder eyes, Mankin is cartoon loony. Far from seeming real, she's like something out of a work of gothic fiction. But in the second act, when we see the character propped up calmly in a hospital bed, the depth of Mankin's performance comes to the fore. She's still comically batty. At one point, with impeccable comic timing, she scatters an entire bottle of pills on the floor.

But she's also frighteningly self-possessed. Before long, the mad old lady starts to look like a literary genius. As a self-proclaimed philistine, Henny kvetches at her son's intellectual reading habits. But when faced with new information about Scooper's love life, Mankin laps up the details like absorbing the pages of a great novel. Light seems to radiate out of her useless eyes and she grins with excitement and girlish expectation. Finally, we come to see Henny as more than a reader. She may be an author, too. "You are my book," she says to Scooper near the end of the play. Mankin utters each of these words with the simplicity and sobriety of someone who understands the world profoundly. Suddenly, Guare's dated little play about psychotherapy hits us in the gut.

One of the things I like best about the theater is its capacity to surprise me. As Bosoms and Neglect proves, my expectations are as likely to be met as they are blatantly defied.



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