nytheatre.com review by Ross Chappell
February 25, 2006
Someone please give these people an award of some kind. I don’t even care which award, as long as this talented group of people doesn’t slip by unnoticed. This elegant, simple, moving production is everything that is right about today’s theatre, and it will be an utter shame if its run isn’t extended or moved to another venue. Like most theatre-goers, I detest being stirred into a frenzy to see a show, only to find that it isn’t all that great. For this show, however, I’ll risk it, and I beg both your indulgence and your patience. Yes, this show really is worth every bit of praise I can muster.
Transatlantic Liaison is the true story of Simone de Beauvoir’s passionate love affair with Nelson Algren. Simone de Beauvoir, a French philosopher/novelist/essayist, was the lifelong companion of French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, and it is that relationship with which I was primarily familiar. I knew virtually nothing of her 17-year love affair with the American writer Nelson Algren, and was interested in the all-too-human side of this canonized intellectual and her lover, a fascinating man in his own right. I went hoping for an interesting piece of theatre that would intrigue me in some way; I was rewarded with one of the best shows I’ve seen in years. The script is what actors must dream about. It is poignant and real and human and touching. The words are elegant, but never fussy, and they allow the actors to move in and out of a variety of time periods without ever feeling forced or artificial. Like this entire production, the script is quiet, unassuming, powerful, and passionate, all at the same time.
The actors, too, are engaging and human in every single moment of this production. There is not one false note during the entire night, and that is truly rare. The chemistry they have with each other and with the audience is practically electric. Elizabeth Grace Rothan does an astonishing job of portraying Simone de Beauvoir as a three-dimensional woman, not merely as the historical figure. She moves with extraordinary grace, but is unaffected. Rothan’s Beauvoir is intelligent and passionate, brave and jealous, mature and adolescent. From the first moments of the play, when she is discussing breast cancer (with disarming wit) and the finding of a lump, Rothan seizes the audience and never lets them go.
Likewise, Matthew Stephen Tompkins, as Nelson Algren, is every bit Rothan’s match. He gives us an Algren who is completely and utterly in love and is driven in both love and work. His bold, blustery characterization of Algren only serves to make his vulnerable moments nearly torturous. I ached for Algren. I ached for them both. It is extremely difficult to imagine better casting for this show. These two work so well together, and their energy is so mutually reinforcing, that the entire show is alive and riveting from start to finish.
John McLean has done an unbelievable job of staging that is both fluid and beautiful. Once again, everything here feels real and immediate and tangible. These two characters move from dialogue to monologue, from café to pyramid top, without ever once losing the audience. The show is paced perfectly. It never feels rushed and never drags. With his careful, effective direction, McLean demonstrates a remarkable understanding of this script, these characters, and the world they inhabit.
With a painstakingly simple and refined set, David Lovett takes advantage of every inch of this intimate, lovely space. From the respective writing spaces of our two authors to the elegance of white curtains drawn back to reveal the various playing spaces, Lovett has given the characters a world to occupy. It is an excellent balance of representational and abstract. (I actually got chills watching Rothan slowly peel back the curtains as though she were re-awakening a long-closed home.) Lovett’s lighting is equally measured and stunning. Like everything else, it is fluid and serves the show well. Even the costumes are captivating (Joanna Zischang, costume coordinator), mostly because they are lovely but unobtrusive and allow onstage changes that move along with the rest of show.
So here goes: there is not one single aspect of this production I would change. All the pieces fit, and everything works together the way it should. While a larger venue might be nice, I can’t help but feel that it would steal away some of the intimacy of this production. That said, if anyone could translate this show to a larger venue and retain every bit of its beauty and impact, I fully believe that this team could pull it off.
I could rave about the cellist (Camilla Boatright, who is absolutely brilliant, by the way), the film sequence, the chair… but I just can’t bear to give away any more of the details. They are part of what makes this production as stunning as it is. It is simple and touching, and only someone who has never known love (of any type or description) could be unmoved by this piece of theatre. The last line of Beauvoir’s bio in the program is a perfect encapsulation of this show: “At her death in Paris in 1986, Beauvoir asked to be buried beside Sartre at Montparnasse wearing Algren’s ring.”