Alan Bennett's homage to theater The Habit of Art (2009), now at
the Studio Theatre (to 10/16), is a privileged and comical look at the rehearsal process from the unique to the mundane. Constructed around
not one but two plays, this backstage comedy - English style "darlings"! - shows us the many small, petty steps
required to transform an inspiration into a work of art. Think of it as puzzle, say a What's Wrong with This Picture
Game? - where there are a dozen differences between the original and the altered copy - and you'll have an idea of what
Habit in toto is about (as, say, The Bard's Rude Mechanicals in The Midsummer's Night's Dream).
Only you won't have to search too hard: the play-within-a-play, here entitled Caliban's Day, is a really,
really bad one - miscast, poorly acted, ill-conceived, edited to the point of incoherence, obscene, and trite. But you
get the point!
Directed by David Muse with finesse and wit,
Habit ostensibly concerns two historical figures, poet W.H. Auden (Ted van Griethuysen) and composer Benjamin Britten
(Paxton Whitehead) and an imagined meeting of the two at the end of their lives. The talkative Auden, who was reportedly
dissatisfied with the ending of The Tempest, hovers meta-critically over Caliban like an authorial voice.
The play, an allusion to Shakespeare's savage, is the ultimate paean to a bottom-up method of historiography, namely those
anonymous foot servants of the great who didn't make the cut.
A few comments on the genesis of the play. Mr. Bennett's script, which feels like a pre-emptive strike
against his own future chroniclers, was assembled from a pair of biographies on Auden and Britten written by one of the play's
real-life characters, Humphrey Carpenter (Cameron Folmar), and culled from their diaries. As such, it takes a frank
and personal look at the lives of these two creative artists. So the picture that emerges is admittedly skewed.
Sensational, yes - Auden lived more or less openly as a homosexual while Britten was discrete and somewhat of a pedophile
- but prosaic as well, both following their muse to the exclusion of all else. Before you can get to the interesting
part on their artistic processes and respective views on their art, you're forced to hear lots (and lots) about fellatio,
male prostitution ("rent boys"), and male genitalia.
Next to sexuality, nothing seems to confound the public more than the idea that flawed people can do good work.
This shouldn't be strange since the nature of creativity functions like an addiction, or habit if you will, excluding
relationships and the "angels of our better nature." In the pursuit of excellence, many fall by the wayside,
masters and associates alike. Habit also points out another disconnect: while we gladly accept these
artistic gifts, we continue to dig for the moral lapses that would seemingly render them tainted.
Habit, as Mr. Bennett tells us in an introduction to the work, was intended to explore
both characters' psyches late in life and also as a means of recycling some material cut from his earlier plays.
So what starts out as a memory play or plays, with the deck shuffled for time and space, begins retrospectively encumbered.
What are the stakes and why two points of view? All the questions the playwright received from the original director,
Nicholas Hytner, got him to superimpose a realistic framework around the main story which now becomes a play-within-a-play
about the rehearsal of an Auden riff on The Tempest. This is a burden that Mr. Muse and his excellent cast
work hard to carry off, succeeding more often than not.
the backstage antics that give the play traction as power struggles, temper tantrums, and vanity vie to unsettle the process.
(The plot is further complicated by the introduction of the theme of the subplay: the completion of an opera based on
Thomas Mann's short story "Death in Venice" and the working cast starts to think it might be "Death in
London" for them!)
As the play begins, a motley assortment
of actors takes the stage to begin the day's rehearsal, stepping around James Noone's cramped set which looks like
a literary flophouse (circa 1972), with books, albums, and bottles piled up (or strewn) everywhere. The director,
it turns out, has been called out of town and left the show in the hands of the stage manager (Margaret Daly).
The pacing of Caliban is at rehearsal speed - herky-jerky - with a lot
of verbal (or physical) stumbling, requiring prompts for and questions from the actors as they step in and out of character.
There's also a hint of insubordination with the director gone, and there's a bit of holding back in their deliveries.
Despite the histrionics, the play is definitely not ready for show time!
operatic collaboration of Death in Venice feels a bit contrived. You never get a sense of what musical
hurdles the composer was struggling against and why Britten would solicit Auden, of all people, for a rewrite of a libretto
that was already written. Certainly, the theme of homosexual desire by a sixty-plus year-old novelist for an adolescent
boy was taboo, but given his body of work - Peter Grimes, Billy Budd, and The Turn of the Screw
- not beyond the pale. Mr. Britten's character, always circumspect, emerges as guarded and we never get a
clear understanding of what is problematic about the score.
play starts to run out of steam well before the end, as if the playwright were trying to leave nothing on the table and in
this production there are two of them. Still if you're patient, there's a few treats remaining.
Mr. van Griethuysen is a joy in or out of character - fussy, patrician, and petulant
when called for and sonorous always in his vocalization. Mr. Whitehead has a tougher row to hoe as an enigmatic composer
and an "efficient," plodding stage performer. It's hard to say whether the perfunctory delivery style
was occasioned by the script, roles, or direction, but I've seen him shine elsewhere. As the stage manager, Ms.
Daly is a comforting presence, directing traffic, soothing jaded nerves, and applying the whip as needed to get the company
on track. Both she and her assistant stage manager (Matt Dewberry), are a hoot as they soldier through various authorial
devices, inanimate and conceptual, to convey the fractured storyline. Wynn Harmon, the fictional playwright Neil, is
a sight as his truncated script disappears with this factious assembly but catch him at the finale when his fanfare for the
common man is restored, and you will see prayerful gratitude and tearful joy made manifest.
Mr. Folmar, a first class scene stealer, will leave you howling with his interpretation of the play and maneuvers
to achieve them (one at the top of Act II, especially), his neediness and incomprehension unbounded. Randy Harrison
is convincing in his characterization of an opportunistic outsider making his way "on the game" or through the theatrical
hierarchy. With a dozen actors spread across two plays - many in multiple
roles - you may need a scorecard to keep them straight. I'd advise checking out Studio's online notes or their excellent program guide to sort things out.
There are some rough
edges around the dialogue in Habit, the structure is convoluted, and the plot, such as it is, feels tacked on, but
the character-driven script and overall acting - Messrs. van Griethuysen and Folmar in particular - will leave you laughing.
This play is Recommended 3 ½+ hands (out of
Additional cast: Alfredo Pulupa, Sam O'Brien, Lynn Sharp Spears,
Will Cooke, and Leo Erickson.
Additional design: Nancy Shertler (lighting),
Alex Jaeger (costumes), and Veronika Vorel (sound).
Runtime: 2:15 w/intermission.
Photo credit: Scott Suchman
© John F. Glass, September 13, 2011