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Theater Review: Talking Heads

Actors love the spotlight and the sound of their own voices, so a monologue is master thespian nirvana. But does an evening of monologues mean monotony for members of the audience? Not if the prose has come from the rapier pen of English playwright-actor Alan Bennett.

Talking Heads is a series of stage solos that Bennett initially wrote for the BBC, where -- gasp! -- things theatrical are actually shown on the telly. The title virtually dares the viewer to find them boring; on TV, of course, "talking heads" can be pretentious gasbags flapping their gums about their alleged expertise. Unadilla Theatre's current production -- a trio of the pieces -- clearly demonstrates what makes Bennett's characters so engaging: their lack of pretense. As the characters struggle to gain a degree of self-confidence, or at least self-knowledge, they quietly win the affection of the audience, who see in them their own faults, frustrations and desires reflected.

Until this year, Bennett was best known on this side of the pond for his Academy Award-nominated script (adapted from his own stage play) for The Madness of King George, the charming 1994 film about the monarch who lost the American colonies.

This June, Bennett's fascination with history paid off in a much bigger way. The History Boys, his drama about young Brits prepping for Oxbridge educations, scored six Tony Awards, including Best Play -- tying the record held by Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman (1949). Bennett's modest remark on winning? "It almost seems unfair to get prizes for something we have so much fun doing."

The History Boys marks the first time a Bennett play has been on Broadway in more than 30 years. The British-American literary pipeline steadily pumps theater westward across the Atlantic. But Bennett's work doesn't always translate effortlessly overseas, as the Talking Heads monologues illustrate. The playwright's Yorkshire origins inspired the provincial characters, who use unfamiliar idioms, clipped syntax and references to obscure locations and landmarks we recognize vaguely, if at all.

But the monologues also have universal elements that need no subtitles: humor, hubris and heartbreak. Unadilla director Bill Blachly wisely resisted the temptation to Americanize any of the cultural references, avoiding the greater danger of introducing incongruities that could fracture dramatic unity or derail a story's momentum. And he had none of his Vermont actors affect a British accent, another smart choice, because the obvious artifice -- we're in East Calais, not the West End! -- would have broken the intimate spell cast by the confessional conversations.

And herein lies the brilliance of Bennett's solo sketches: The monologues are actually all about dialogue. The scenes are not soul- and garment-rending soliloquies à la Hamlet. People rummage through their relationships rather than their subconscious. Characters recall, and reenact, occasions with important people in their lives -- husbands, mothers, neighbors -- reflecting the loved (or hated) one's behavior through their own experiences.

"A Chip in the Sugar" is a remarkable example of bringing a whole world to life through one character, a middle-aged man named Graham. He's living with and caring for his aging mother when their carefully regulated, unhealthily codependent world is upended by the arrival of her "pre-Dad" boyfriend, who becomes her new "fancy man." Over the monologue's 35-minute arc, Bennett skillfully draws us in by mixing comic moments with darker insights. In real life, Graham is someone we might strenuously try to avoid: nervous, peevish, unstable and set in his ways. But we grow quite fond of him.

At Unadilla, Clarke Jordan's performance as Graham was stunning: technically remarkable and emotionally captivating. He seemed at ease carrying the demands of Bennett's script, the subtle modulations of mood as well as the whipsaw scenes of multi-character speech.

For example, Graham recalls the awkward restaurant meal where his mother's boyfriend reveals "common" attitudes while relentlessly needling Graham. Jordan captured the nuances of everyone at the table, as refracted through Graham's growing discomfiture. The elderly woman's edgy voice developed a goofy girlishness, the interloper's boorishness waxed, and Graham's confidence waned. Jordan also excelled in recounting the lighthearted exchanges. When the hapless vicar reminds Graham's mother, "I am married to God," Jordan nailed her loopy deadpan reply: "Where does that leave you with the housework?"

As Graham's stress levels rise, Jordan curled his body language inward. He rocked gently back and forth on his feet, a gesture halfway between trying to soothe himself and the incipient catatonia of mental collapse. Through a rich accretion of detail, Jordan made us empathize deeply -- to identify with Graham, free of condescension or pity.

At first, it's harder to like Rosemary of "Nights in the Gardens of Spain." She seems a tad superficial, pondering the rug stain left by her murdered neighbor's corpse. She's an avid gardener, proficient in the Latin and common names of plants. But her suburban preoccupation with surfaces and labels is surprisingly usurped by genuine friendship with the killer: a wife who shot her abusive husband. Rosemary's tale twists often, with touching and then heart-wrenching results.

Zephyr Teachout painted a moving portrait of Rosemary. She maintained Rosemary's consistent veneer of prim restraint while showing how the character's emotions gradually begin to ripen and roil as her naivete falls away. Teachout fiercely chopped a cabbage on a cutting board to punctuate an especially bitter moment of realization. With soft-spoken but urgent delivery, she conveyed Rosemary's need to confide her story, to entrust those watching with her pain.

The protagonist of "The Hand of God" faces a somewhat less profound crisis than do Graham and Rosemary. Celia struggles to run her old-fashioned antiques shop in the modern era of "Antiques Roadshow"-savvy customers and predatory auction-house hotshots who snap up all the good merchandise. She hovers over a dying acquaintance, whose house also happens to be a "treasure trove." This does make her wonder, briefly, about her own integrity: "Am I a person? Or am I simply a professional bargain hunter?" Her comeuppance is pointed, literally -- the humble drawing of a finger pokes a permanent hole in her smug self-assurance.

As Celia, Sarah Payne gave the least satisfying of the three performances. Unlike Jordan and Teachout, who were letter-perfect in the mid-run performance I saw, Payne stumbled over a handful of lines. The breathy sameness of her voice throughout Celia's monologue skated over nuances in Bennett's text, such as wistfulness for her deceased husband and the "good old days" of the antiques biz. And when the veteran vendor learns she's been had by "the oldest dodge in the world," we needed to see a little bit more of the shark's teeth beneath her ladylike exterior.

The spare stage at Unadilla served the monologues well. Against the black floor and walls, just a few items of furniture conjured each character's environment. To delineate the passage of time, the lights briefly dimmed as the actors stepped into the wings to alter their costumes slightly, adding a vest or apron, for example. Director Blachly kept the actors' physical movements simple as well. The focus was squarely on the interior steps, stumbles and leaps each character takes.

A melancholy theme threads through Bennett's individual portraits: the finality of being alone in the world, even when you're with those closest to you. The world we inhabit with other people is always filtered through the lens -- often damaged, usually distorted -- of self. But these insights go down softly in a darkened theater, a reassuring place to experience being alone together.

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Elisabeth Crean

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