Styles Over Substance

Clashing acting styles undermine Otherwise Engaged

click to enlarge ELEMENTS OF STYLE: Otherwise Engaged - works when styles coincide. From left, David - Breitbarth, Stephen Johnson and Natasha Staley. - Lunardi Photography
Lunardi Photography
ELEMENTS OF STYLE: Otherwise Engaged works when styles coincide. From left, David Breitbarth, Stephen Johnson and Natasha Staley.

There are two too many acting styles on evidence these days at the Jane B. Cook Theatre, where Simon Gray's Otherwise Engaged is being presented by the Banyan Theater Company. First, there's the realistic style of Stephen Johnson as Simon Hench, Natasha Staley as the novelist Davina, Douglas Jones as betrayed lover Bernard Wood, and Linda Slade as Hench's adulterous wife, Beth.

Then there's what might be called the farcical style — all caricature, no character — of Ross Boehringer as Simon's tenant, Dave, and of Geoffrey Todd as Simon's brother, Stephen.

And finally there's the hyperactive style — all energy and intensity for no immediately discernable reason — of David Breitbarth as critic Jeff Golding.

Put them all together, and what you get is an experience that never really makes emotional sense, that's never, in fact, consistent enough to work itself very deeply into consciousness. Still, the play is often very funny, and when styles coincide — for example, when realist Jones is alone on stage with realist Johnson — you can understand why Otherwise Engaged was so successful in its London premiere.

But then actor Boehringer crashes in like a figure from an English Laverne and Shirley, or thespian Todd lumbers by like a stereotyped Brit from a Monty Python routine, and all the emotional force of the earlier sequence is undercut. I can't imagine why director Brad Mooy allowed these contradictions into this production. But if there's an important emotional truth in Otherwise Engaged — and I'm not sure there is — then this clash of performance types is perfectly tailored to mask it. I left the play feeling that I'd witnessed a triviality.

Which is not to say that the show's not entertaining. No, this story about a publisher who's repeatedly interrupted when he tries to listen to a recording of Wagner's Parsifal is witty and unpredictable and rich in put-downs of the type one would expect of the author of Butley. Here's quietly sarcastic Simon Hench handling ridiculous tenant/sponger Dave; now Simon's faced with his absurdly self-critical brother Stephen. Stephen's just leaving when inebriated book critic Jeff Golding arrives with his confession that he's falling in love with his ex-wife. Jeff's aggressive girlfriend Davina shows up next; and after Jeff has stormed out, Davina takes off her blouse and offers herself to the tempted Simon. But fidelity triumphs, and so Simon's not compromised when hapless old schoolmate Wood arrives to accuse him of cuckolding him. And on and on until Simon's wife shows up with the news of her adultery.

Through it all, Simon is serene and a little disingenuous, treating everyone's crises with a grudging politeness, and looking very, very good in comparison with the people who call upon him. But he's not noble enough to be admired — or mean enough to be disliked — so we never quite understand what to think of him, besides that he's patient. Does he at least have our sympathy? Not often, not really. And he certainly lacks anything at all like charisma.

Perhaps the problem is actor Johnson's performance. I've praised Johnson before — especially for his fine work as the surgeon/brother in Arthur Miller's The Price — but I think he makes too much of a cold fish out of Simon Hench. The late Alan Bates played Hench in the London production, and one can imagine what the very physical, very mischievous Bates did with the part (and one can see his manic Butley on DVD). Johnson is almost the exact opposite of Bates — fair where Bates was dark, in the most metaphorical senses.

Johnson's prime instrument is not his body but his face, which registers experience with winces, grimaces, wrinklings and blinks. At first these reflexes are appropriate and comic, but as the evening proceeds they begin to seem like tics, all too familiar. At the end, Johnson's Hench just seems superficial. We can't guess what deep complexes lie beneath his surface remoteness, and we can't imagine him having much of an interior life at all. As for whether his aloofness is punished by play's end — something we're apparently supposed to believe — I must admit that I didn't feel it. As Johnson plays the part, Hench is a little more troubled at the finish than at the start, but not fundamentally. Fundamentally, he still seems disconnected from real emotion.

There are some excellent performances in the play, though. Best of all is Douglas Jones as Bernard Wood, Simon's old schoolmate. I can hardly exaggerate the success of this portrayal of a quietly self-hating man who's been hurt to the core. Also fine is Staley as novelist Davina, who's convinced that all a man needs to be utterly undone is the offer of sex. (Hench tells her that he finds her personality offensive, but her breasts enticing.) Linda Slade as Hench's wife, Beth, is a long-pent-up confession just waiting to happen. While Hench does his best to keep her adultery unspoken, she charges on past his defenses to give it a name and a habitation. These "realistic" actors offer us something like the world I believe Gray intended.

The others — Boehringer and Todd and Breitbarth — come from another place altogether, one where everything's exaggerated, and the constant subtext is "Laugh at me; I'm hilarious." In Boehringer and Todd's cases, the portrayals are two-dimensional and easy enough to understand. But I can't say that I know what Breitbarth is getting at with his Jeff Golding, a character who says he's drunk but acts like he's on speed, and who, late in the play, for some reason I can't fathom, earns a Scotch in the face.

The play is intelligent if less than compassionate; intermittently funny if less than constantly amusing; an agreeable pastime if less than a revelation. Author Gray is something of a master of derision, and there's an odd catharsis in seeing so many characters so disparaged.

But all great comedies have a core of real seriousness. I can't find that core in Otherwise Engaged.

What I do find is an author in love with a good jibe.

And a director who hasn't turned his actors into an ensemble.

Performance Critic Mark E. Leib can be reached at [email protected].

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