Prodded to share his emotions with the woman he's just slept with, a no-nonsense cab driver utters the immortal line, "Feel is a big word." Like most of the ten urban dwellers in David Hare's The Blue Room, the cabbie and his one-night partner are relative strangers who seem more intent on meshing various body parts than intertwining emotional lives. While Hare's cheeky update of Arthur Schnitzler's La Ronde leaves little more to the imagination than the specific circumstances (and duration) of each fleshy encounter, the Theatre Group's version is a well-acted, tastefully staged excursion into an echoey, bankrupt vault of modern sensibilities.
In fact, director Nicholas Sugar and a pair of talented performers lend artful dimension to Hare's round-robin sex tournament, which lacks the mystery of conquest that made Schnitzler's 1896 original a classic portrait of Viennese decadence. Hare's scenes mirror Schnitzler's circular arrangement well enough; one character hooks up with his or her partner, who, in turn, hooks up with yet another partner in the next scene, and so on. But some episodes fail to progress beyond exchanged pleasantries and pleasures, while a few others devolve into humdrum sniping and/or philosophizing sessions. Even so, actors David Russell and Sheila Ivy Traister make the most of each sensual encounter, shedding inhibitions along with their clothes in ways that make their most intimate, exposed moments seem as natural and unforced as breezy pillow talk.
The entire play is performed against a fabric-strewn setting that consists of a central, circular platform, several surrounding stair units and two translucent fabric "booths" that serve as inter-episode changing rooms (credit Charles Dean Packard with the dreamy setting, which gives off an azure hue similar to those little blue pills that Bob Dole, who's the object of a one-liner here, says he isn't ashamed of taking). Just as soon as one scene ends, the actors retire to their dressing areas on opposite sides of the stage and, accompanied by pop-music songs with suggestive lyrics, prepare to dive into the next episode. While it might be more interesting if the performers were to remain onstage and assume each successive persona while changing, say, one piece of clothing or jewelry, the backlit costume changes prove an effective way to insert some breathing room between mattress moments and shift each episode's tone without destroying the play's overall mood.
Blessed with good looks, supple bodies and abundant skill, Traister and Russell navigate the rougher parts of Hare's anti-Decalogue with style, sensitivity and humor. Traister, in particular, demonstrates her ability to play everything from a slinky, sexy girl who just wants to have fun to a duplicitous matron whose refined political instincts dwarf those of her elected-official husband -- a relationship that resonates best because it's the most unpredictable and psychologically developed of the bunch. She's equally convincing when playing a coke-snorting model, a dizzy-but-kinky au pair and a hard-bitten actress who's determined to reign over the human race on all sides of the footlights. Never strident but always succinct, Traister illuminates each woman's longings and, in some cases, hangups with well-chosen embellishments -- when as the actress, for instance, she wordlessly moves a small vase to one side of her dressing table, Traister flashes her backstage suitor a barely perceptible smile that signals her intent to momentarily set him apart from her legions of admirers.
The protean Russell beautifully matches her by zeroing in on each character's quirks and facets without overly magnifying any of them. He's likable as the aforementioned cabbie, a mass of insecurities and hormones as an eager student, properly too-wound as an artsy aristocrat, and right on the money as an overconfident (and unsuspecting) politico. Best of all, Russell gets comically stuck on himself as a black-clad poet/playwright who believes that "journalists are writers in the way that rats are animals" -- a loaded comment that Hare good-naturedly turns back on himself in a subsequent scene when the actress says to her lover-playwright, "You could write wonderful things if you had any talent."
And while that line lingers uncomfortably as an unconscious self-assessment of The Blue Room, Hare's threadbare play winds up suffering more from a softness in technique than any failings in the talent department. Which seems appropriate for a play that deals more with the trappings of sex than the dynamics of desire.
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