Wilma Theater, Broad and Spruce Sts., through Oct. 12, 546-STAGE
Yvonne (Saebra Jones McAteer) is a diabetic "semi-permanent invalid" confined to a gigantic disheveled bed in an equally disheveled "gypsy camp" of a room (designed by David P. Gordon, the crumpled sheets appear to have crumpled the entire house). Her orderly prune-faced sister Leo (Wendy vanden Heuvel) gives order to the house, in perpetual revenge for the fact that Yvonne's husband, George (Joseph Culliton), had been engaged to her before marrying Yvonne. Yvonne is grotesquely involved in an Oedipal (or should we call it a Jocastal?) relationship with her son, Michael (Stephen Douglas Harrison). Michael is now in love with Madeleine (Hayley Sparks), who is dumping her sugar-daddy lover to marry Michael. Madeleine's sugar-daddy lover turns out to be George.
"My God, you could put it in the silliest boulevard farce and it would be dismissed as being a little far-fetched," observes George.
Well, yes. But if Jean Cocteau's Indiscretions (as Jeremy Sams' translation of Les Parents Terribles has been renamed) is boulevard farce, it is Feydeau by way of Oedipus Rex and Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Yes, the characters are, as in farce, inept schemers caught in a web of coincidence. But they are caught in the even more pernicious web of their family psychoses. And, perhaps more significantly, the farcical coincidences mask astonishing psychological complexities and deep emotion; and the puppy-like sincerity of Michael and Madeleine's love is rooted in emotions and motivations so simple and so pure that even the eponymous monstrous parents ultimately yield to them.
Jiri Zizka's production at the Wilma gets the farce, gets the grotesquery of dysfunctionality, and gets the play's somewhat verbose philosophy - though Zizka seems to be in such a hurry to shave 15 minutes off of the three-hour script that all the exposition sounds like exposition and all the philosophy sounds only like philosophizing. But what Zizka and his actors get - and don't get - of the human emotions of it all throws off Cocteau's delicate dramaturgy.
Not for one moment did I believe the deep hurt at the center of George's heart that turns him first into a charmer, then into a heartless Machiavel, and finally into a sympathetic redeemer. Not for one moment did I believe the deep hurt at the center of Leo's heart that turns her into a cruel manipulator and then into a sympathetic redeemer. And so, the contrasts between old and young, deceit and honesty, game-playing and love, psychoses that cripple and neuroses that potentially liberate, seem artificial. And the earnest young actors playing Michael and Madeleine, as though to compensate for their stodgy and stagy elders, are left to writhe in agony, acting like all get-out in the second and third acts to fill up the emotional vacuum.
I did believe McAteer's emotions as Yvonne; and her extended scene in bed with Michael, both of them as frisky as kittens with a ball of yarn, was the first time the play and the production came to life. But she never made me believe the magnitude of Yvonne's smothering motherliness, which has to be sufficiently grand and sufficiently monstrous to bring the play to its potentially gruesome conclusion.
(And if the actors seemed a bit too American, it's not because they were too American to portray Parisians, but because they were too American for the Britishness of Sams' translation, with all its references to "chaps" and "chums," and lines like "You are the giddy limit, you are.")
"Show us your heart," Leo says to George when trying to manipulate the plot to a happy conclusion. Eventually, all five characters do; but I never believed what they showed us.
-Cary M. Mazer