New stuff

All About Anna







Other Stuff



Paquin and piano, redux

Charles Isherwood

Anna Paquin is reunited with a piano, oddly enough, in "The Glory of Living," Rebecca Gilman's bleak slice-of-lowlife play about amoral young killers in the American South. The Oscar-winning star of "The Piano," now 19, is making her stage debut Off Broadway as an abused, neglected teenager who winds up on death row. The sad symbol of the childhood she never had is a toy piano she clings to as a memento from a distant but scarcely happier time.

Glory of Living actually predates the two Gilman plays that already have been produced in New York, Spinning Into Butter and Boy Gets Girl. Originally produced in Chicago in 1997 and seen at London's Royal Court Theater in early 1999, Glory is less overtly a think piece than the other two, but it is also the product of a skilled, intelligent writer with a fondness for diagnostics (and an occasionally heavy hand: The thuddingly ironic title is dubious).

This time the case study is culled from a lower social milieu, the white trash of the Deep South. The play's grisly opening scene finds 15-year-old Lisa (Paquin) making desultory conversation with the older Clint (Jeffrey Donovan), a clumsy sweet-talker, while her mother has noisy sex with a customer on the other side of a sheet strung up in the middle of their dingy one-room apartment.

In the course of the second scene, which takes place some time later, we learn that Lisa and Clint are married. He's been in and out of jail. She's had twins and spent some time in foster homes. They're now holed up in a dumpy hotel room (Michelle Malavet's sets are grimily on the mark, and lit in apt, ugly antiseptic shades by James Vermeulen).

Clint, played by Donovan with frighteningly amiable menace, alternates physical abuse and ugly threats with words of affection. Midway through the scene, Lisa storms angrily into the bathroom and Clint drags from behind a bed the limp body of a barely clothed young girl. Lisa, it seems, has become a kind of procurer for Clint; eventually it's revealed that she also dispatches the victims afterward with his gun.

We see a couple of their hapless victims: vague, empty-eyed girls whose histories, it is hinted, mirror Lisa's. Moved by inchoate feelings of remorse, Lisa calls the police afterward and describes the locations of their bodies. In act two, Lisa's lawyer tries to probe her blank mind for some understanding of the circumstances that turned her into the willing tool of a monstrous man, but she's hardly capable of the perspective required.

Because it deals with characters whose capacities for complex thought and feeling have been left undeveloped by neglect, Gilman's play cannot really illuminate their interior lives through dialogue. The playwright presents the ugly facts in authentic-feeling detail, but serious emotional engagement is hard when a play's characters can only reveal how hollow they are. We can cluck sadly at the circumstances that brought about this waste of humanity (or snort at the inescapable bit of white-trash black comedy), but since there's actually no humanity on display, there's nothing to move us beyond simple disgust.

Philip Seymour Hoffman's direction emphasizes, even exacerbates, the play's chilly, clinical tone. Paquin is convincing as a young girl who has had all the potential drained out of her by 15, and the furtive way she moves her eyes, seeming always to be trained on a corner of the room, is effective. But her affectless delivery of the dialogue, while presumably intentional, is nevertheless monotonous and serves to alienate us further from the character. An actress with more stage experience might be able to communicate nuances in the character's stunted psyche more movingly.

Many of the other actors tap into the same zombielike key: the talented actresses who play the victims, for example, and even Andrew McGinn, playing a man who was shot by Lisa and whose girlfriend was killed by her. When he exhorts her lawyer, "Give her the chair," he says it with an almost complete absence of emotion.

Only late in the second act, when Lisa's lawyer, Carl (the skilled, affecting David Aaron Baker), begins coaxing some glimmers of awareness out of her, does the play begin to resemble something other than a documentary. But the drama that is the play's ostensible subject -- the destruction of a child's humanity -- is essentially over before the production begins. We see only the aftermath, which is a repellent spectacle, certainly, but not particularly dramatic and definitely not what you'd call entertaining.

Sets, Michelle Malavet; costumes, Mimi O'Donnell; lighting, James Vermeulen; music and sound, David Van Tieghem; fight direction, Rick Sordelet; dialect coach, Kate Wilson; production stage manager, Stacy P. Hughes. Artistic directors, Robert LuPone, Bernard Telsey. Opened Nov. 15, 2001. Reviewed Nov. 13. Running time: 1 HOUR, 50 MIN.

Variety, November 15, 2001