nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 30, 2011
Because I was the first audience member up the stairs the night I saw Elective Affinities, I had a memorable moment alone with Zoe Caldwell on the landing. She was in character, as rich octogenarian Alice Hauptmann, and greeted me, as her first "guest," graciously and gracefully, looking elegant in a rich black suit designed by Susan Hilferty. She touched my hand and urged me on to the drawing room where the play takes place, as other "guests" arrived at the top of the stairs.
As one who adored Caldwell's performance in Master Class, that moment with this bona fide star and bona fide brilliant actress was rather a thrill.
But Elective Affinities is too slight, not to mention too brief, a work of theatre to finally show Caldwell off to great advantage. The script runs just ten pages long, and while it's dazzling in places, it just doesn't provide sufficient character development for us to really appreciate and understand Mrs. Hauptmann, this sacred monster who is entertaining a roomful of visitors with stories ostensibly about the massive black work of art on display in a room below. Playwright David Adjmi intends to give us a bit of a jolt by introducing us to this charming creature who out of the blue will ask if anyone pretends to believe in human rights. But, at least as presented here, we never get quite enough information for the jolt to acquire much weight.
Director Sarah Benson (artistic director of Soho Rep, co-presenter of this play with piece by piece productions and Rising Phoenix Repertory) has staged Elective Affinities not in a regular theatre but in a mansion whose identity is revealed in the program but is supposed to be a secret until you receive instructions as to how to get there; the venue makes this site-specific theatre, but the opportunities that that choice ought to engender are barely exploited.
The play itself unfolds on the third floor of the mansion in a lavishly and tastefully appointed room (set design is by Louisa Thompson); be prepared to walk up a lot of steps. Before the play begins, tea and light refreshments are served on the second floor, and the art object that is central to the play is on view in an adjacent room (where refreshments aren't allowed). Staff serve the food and carry on a vague pretense that they work for the fictional Mrs. Hauptmann, but that's as far as their engagement with the audience goes: when we asked a young woman guarding the oversized sculpture what she could tell us about it, she had nothing to say.
During the play proper, Caldwell—compelling and luminous as ever, though performing with the script open before her on a music stand—is much nearer to us than she would be were she on stage, but her interactions with us are no different than they would have been if there was a proscenium arch between us and her.
So the point of doing Elective Affinities environmentally eluded me, though I can imagine how such a presentation might really enhance and beef up the slenderness of the play itself.
But the tea was delicious, and the chocolates offered looked quite yummy. And I will not forget sharing the stage, such as it was, with the legendary Zoe Caldwell.