How much of hypochondria is actually hype? What is the difference between feeling ill and actually being ill?
This could have been the only interesting aspect of "Well," Lisa Kron's odd and pretentious puzzle of a play that opened last night at the Longacre Theatre, two years after a successful run at the Public.
Kron, the play's author and star, comes on and assures us of her intent to deal with "issues of illness and wellness," asking the question: "Why are some people sick and other people are well?"
Regrettably, the play does no such thing - neither Kron's writing skills nor her thought processes seem up to it.
She is writing she says, "a solo show with other people in it. It's a whole new thing." Right.
Her prime example of the "unwell" is her mother, Ann (the excellent Jayne Houdyshell), who's found, like a rumple of used clothing, stage left and prostrate in a La-Z-Boy, as we enter the theater.
During this mercilessly elongated, intermission-less 100-minute play, Ann remains there, with occasional timeouts for interventions with the rest of the cast. Ann is apparently suffering like Job, but without his patience - afflicted not with plague, pestilence and famine, but with allergies.
"Well" is what might be called a memory play. it's also what might be called Pirandellian - poor Pirandello, a playwright far better than the adjective that fate has glued upon him -in that characters break through the drama's fourth wall and start reacting outside the playwright's volition.
The play has six actors, perhaps in homage to Pirandello's "Six Characters in Search of an Author." Sadly, the search comes up empty.
There is a kind of subplot. It appears that this neurotic, obsessive mother was determined, in 1968, to integrate her Lansing, Mich., neighborhood - another metaphor for "wellness" - and for seven years labored mightily to bring this about.
The facts of this autobiographical monologue - with-people may well be accurate, but the cartoonish tone in which Kron tells them is ludicrous. It doesn't take long for Houdyshell to hijack the play - a simple act of piracy in which the playwright becomes an unwitting co-conspirator.
Houdyshell has a lovely way with a colloquial line, and can pierce through Kron's terminal jokiness with a conviction remote from Kron's farrago of an acting style.
How the estimable Tony Walton found himself responsible for the scenic design I cannot imagine. The other actors would doubtless have done better in a better play, while director Leigh Silverman for the most part kept awkwardness at bay.
Fans of that beleaguered literary form, the memoir, can breathe a little more easily this morning. Lisa Kron's sparkling autobiographical play "Well" has arrived on Broadway, where it opened last night at the Longacre Theater, to restore the honor of a genre that was slipping into disgrace even before Oprah Winfrey ran James Frey through a shredder on national television.
Like Mr. Frey, whose best-selling account of his struggles with addiction turned out to have a casual relationship with reality, Ms. Kron is obviously — shall we say — inventive when it comes to exploring her own past. The star, author and would-be main character of "Well," Ms. Kron does not avoid the temptations of such now notorious artistic tools as composite characters, compressed events and even (can you imagine?) exaggeration to heighten dramatic and comic effect.
But "Well," first produced in New York two years ago at the Public Theater, has a built-in safety check from which any memoirist with a slippery grasp of the truth could benefit. The name of this device is Ann Kron, who happens to be Lisa Kron's mother and is embodied onstage with majestic warmth and weariness by Jayne Houdyshell.
Ann Kron may not have total recall (she is frankly hazy on some facts), but she knows when Lisa is seriously straying from the way things were. And so there she is, downstage left in a big Broadway theater, pointing out slips from the hard road of accuracy and stealing the show from her grown-up little girl in the process. This makes you feel a bit sorry for Lisa Kron, until you remember that she wrote this play and that there is method in such sabotage.
A deliberately self-conscious, calculatedly awkward exercise in recapturing the past, "Well" has many big themes to ponder. Standing before a simulacrum of her parents' living room, where Ms. Houdyshell appears to have dozed off in her La-Z-Boy, Ms. Kron nervously announces her intended themes in her opening monologue. They are illness and integration, in both the social and the cosmic senses. Since her mother is an inveterate invalid and the woman who spearheaded the racial integration of the Lansing, Mich., neighborhood where Lisa grew up, Ann Kron provides a conveniently close-to-hand Exhibit A.
But woe to the child who tries to confine her feelings about a parent to an outline on a note card. "Well," directed by Leigh Silverman, turns out to be about the mystery of human personalities, even and especially those of the people you think you know intimately. What makes "Well" much more than a clever, deconstructed theatrical riff is the way it keeps surprising itself with glimpses of an emotional depth, both murky and luminous, that goes beyond any tidy narrative.
I fell in love with "Well" when I saw it in 2004, but I worried about its chances on Broadway, a place where you have to shout to be heard. My anxiety was not without foundation. Starting with Tony Walton's new set for the show, much of "Well" has been scaled up in ways that create a sense of strain, of an electrified perkiness. This is intermittently true of the four ensemble members (Daniel Breaker, Saidah Arrika Ekulona, John Hoffman and Christina Kirk) who portray different figures from Ms. Kron's past, sometimes breaking out of character in Pirandellian rebellion against the author.
Using enhanced grimaces and double takes as she pontificates on the nature of meta-theater, Ms. Kron seems too much the professorial buffoon, set up expressly to have the avant-garde stuffing knocked out of her. Self-caricature is not necessary to achieve the friction between Ms. Kron's perspective and her mother's.
Once again, though, Mom comes to the rescue. Ms. Houdyshell's performance as Ann Kron retains an anchoring authenticity that guarantees that "Well" opens doors of insight and emotion that no other play in New York is unlocking right now. From the moment she first wakens from a leaden slumber — squinting with slight alarm into the audience and murmuring, "Oh, hello" — Ms. Houdyshell's Ann is the perfect focal point of filial ambivalence. Slovenly in her time-bleached housedress as she struggles up a staircase, she inspires immense affection and embarrassment at the same time.
She pulls you, as well as Ms. Kron, into an inescapable emotional gravity field. It's the effect that Ms. Kron describes so eloquently when she speaks of what happens when grown children, who feel they have gained perspective on their past, return to the family homestead: "You realize that your parents live in an alternative universe where your therapy has no power."
Just as important to the purposes of "Well" is the paradoxical mix of energy and exhaustion that seems to seep from Ms. Houdyshell's very pores. Despite her galvanizing purposefulness as a neighborhood organizer, Ann Kron has always been afflicted by a paralyzing lethargy she attributes to unidentifiable allergies. Lisa Kron grew up assuming that "the mysterious family illness" was her legacy. And at 19, she left college to be treated in an allergy clinic in Chicago.
Much of Ms. Kron's running narrative is devoted to the pains she takes to distance herself from the other patients she met at that clinic and, by extension, from her mother. As played by Ms. Ekulona and Ms. Kirk, those patients initially register as funny gargoyles, the stuff of anecdote. But Ms. Kron also allows the actresses moments in which real, inexplicable pain and bewilderment pierce their cartoon masks. These scenes anticipate the glorious moment when an exasperated Ms. Kron surrenders the stage to her mother. A tidal wave of sorrow then washes over the audience — a poignant, wondering sense of the ultimate aloneness of everyone.
Now that Spalding Gray is gone, Ms. Kron may well be the best stand-up memoirist of the American theater. She has an inspired gift for spinning the depths of personal mortification into high-flying comedy, a trait in evidence a decade ago in her "101 Humiliating Stories" and still alive and kicking in "Well." (Her accounts of dressing up in costume as a child are agonizingly funny.)
But more than any other monologist I can think of, including Mr. Gray, she uses autobiography to point out the limitations of the artificial forms we naturally impose upon memory. Even better, as she acknowledges those limitations, she tries to break out of the circularity of public introspection. Her "2.5 Minute Ride" (1999), a portrait of her father, whose parents died at Auschwitz, beautifully acknowledged the impossibility of fully entering another mind.
In introducing other, insubordinately active characters into her work with "Well," Ms. Kron gives physical life to this exasperation. Of course Ms. Houdyshell isn't really Ann Kron (who is still very much alive). But her rich, complex presence summons the tantalizing otherness of a complete personality. Lisa Kron may understand, painfully and regretfully, that we can never really know someone else. But the loving vigor with which she tries to do so here turns the natural selfishness of the memoir into a glowing act of generosity.
The most daring Broadway offering of the season may not be the musical about human meat pies or the comedy with cat-killing Irishmen or the drama featuring the pretty Hollywood megastar.
The most audacious of all might just be Lisa Kron's "Well," the disarming, good-natured, almost brutally deceptive little piece that had the nerve to contact a mainstream audience at the Longacre Theatre last night with no gore, no hype and - so far - no stars.
That last part should change now that more people can get a look at Jayne Houdyshell, the wonderful not-petite, not-young actress making her Broadway debut in a big cotton housedress and a not-new La-Z-Boy recliner.
Kron plays herself, sort of, in this friendly, intentionally messy and smart 100-minute revelation in self-referential denial. She claims that the lethargic Midwestern woman dozing stage-left is not really meant to be her chronically ill mother. She maintains that details of their lives will merely be used to explore universal issues about why some people and communities are sick and some are well, why some stay sick and some get well.
Although "Well" was embraced at the Public Theater in 2004, it hardly declared itself a Broadway-ready transfer. Kron, a performance artist and founding member of the delightful Five Lesbian Brothers, wasn't hardselling herself when she called this experiment "a solo with other people in it." But some Broadway producers thought big, and their foresight is refreshing and even inspirational.
There are times in Leigh Silverman's sly and intentionally self-conscious production when actors seem to be pushing too hard to fill the theater, but never mind. "Well" may seem to ramble, but it's extremely well-organized. When it feels contrived, Kron uses the contrivance to blow up the conventions of the one-person show. And if all of this sounds like work instead of pleasure, forget we said it.
The experience is divided into three playing fields, designed by Tony Walton. There is the comically amateurish space where Kron's memories are re-enacted in stylized exaggeration.
There's the magic spotlight in which she talks directly to the audience, trying to control lives that refuse to be easily packaged. And there is the slice of her mother's house, in excruciating detail.
This is a woman who believes in "allergies and racial integration," an energetic woman trapped in an "utterly exhausted body," who worked to keep their neighborhood in Lansing, Mich., from deteriorating into a slum. Four other actors mix stagy parody and poignance as people from the neighborhood and patients in a Chicago hospital that specialized in allergies.
Kron imagines mutinies by the actors and shares complaints about playwrights who simplify life into montages and metaphors. She makes knowing asides about the "culture of illness" by which her family has kept time through the years. For all the seemingly casual humor, Kron concludes that the chronically sick are not necessarily well people who are ill, just as Jews are not Christians who happen to be Jewish and blacks are not whites who happen to be black.
Her conclusions are both graceful and awkward, subtle and obvious, elegant and confusing. Like life - and expectations for Broadway shows.
In the age of high anxiety, the idea of a benevolent hijacking seems unorthodox. But that's pretty much what happens onstage in Lisa Kron's ingeniously oddball play "Well," arriving on Broadway with its many charms intact after a hit 2004 run at the Public Theater. That the pilot in this case allows herself to be so thoroughly commandeered by other forces, both as playwright and lead performer, only enhances the refreshingly self-effacing, generous and genuine qualities of this circuitous but clearly heartfelt tribute to Kron's mother, a maverick spirit and a champion of integration.
Despite its advocacy of accepting difference, this is no banal message play. A "solo show with other people in it," "Well" studiously defies categorization. It borrows as much from Pirandello as from more contemporary downtown metatheatrics to flirt willfully with chaos and derailment throughout much of the running time -- only to come together with bracing clarity in the final stretch when Kron appears to have lost control of the vehicle.
Of course, the anarchy is entirely artful and calculated, but in director Leigh Silverman's playfully loose-limbed production, it has the captivating air of reckless spontaneity.
Adopting the manner of a slightly self-conscious motivational speaker, Kron insists off the bat that this is not a play about herself and her mother, indicating the woman in the dowdy nightgown, cardigan and slippers stage left who's been snoozing in a La-Z-Boy recliner since the audience entered.
Revealing that her chosen topic will be illness and wellness in the individual and the community, Kron describes the show, with the help of index cards, as "a theatrical exploration of issues which are universal and for which we will occasionally be using my mother as an example."
But from the moment her mother, Ann (Jayne Houdyshell), is roused from slumber, it seems clear from her skeptical comments that this affable Midwestern woman will be no meekly compliant instructional aid. Clearly, she's not ecstatic about waking to find herself and her living room (a cluttered, pack-rat corner of Tony Walton's deftly multifunctional set) on display before a live audience. But if Ann Kron's lifelong battle with "allergies" is going to be discussed, she wants a hand in the telling.
"My mother is a fantastically energetic person trapped in an utterly exhausted body," explains Lisa. Despite the dogged determination with which she claims a broader scope, that paradox is the play's galvanizing central conflict.
"It's not about how she's been sick for years and years and years, and I was sick as well but somehow I got better," insists Lisa. "It's not about how she was able to heal a neighborhood, but she's not able to heal herself." The magic of "Well" is both its reluctant confinement to personal history and its seemingly haphazard, empathetic embrace of a more universal perspective.
The healing intervention of which Kron speaks grew out of her mother's desire to raise the playwright and her brother in a racially integrated neighborhood, hence the need to set about creating one in Lansing, Mich., using social activities to build political power and battle the city council over zoning changes. With the help of four other multitasking cast members, the play also chronicles Lisa's time in the allergy unit at Chi's Henrotin Hospital.
In these two main threads, the play's logic subscribes entirely to the logic of Ann Kron, who believes in allergies ("a highly underrated, sinister, life-destroying force kept secret from us by the evil AMA-controlled medical establishment") and in the positive effects of racial integration. Distilling her mother's liberal-progressive credo, Lisa says: "It's important to be different. If you're a part of the main group all the time, you never learn to see the world from anyone's point of view but your own."
Ann's interruptions at first are confined to correcting a detail or straightening a timeline here and there. But as Lisa's solo-performance approach is increasingly revealed to be inadequate for the task at hand, her mother's incursions become more frequent and destabilizing.
While dutifully attempting to sit back and let Lisa "do her work," Ann observes that the montage of events seems "awfully compressed," sharing her doubts about oversimplification with the other cast members and eventually sparking a kind of well-meaning mutiny. "She's more used to the one-woman shows," says Ann, by way of explaining why the other cast members respond more to her than to Lisa. "She's figuring it out."
In allowing another character onstage to dismantle her method with charges that it's too easy, forcing her to "stop hiding behind this play and talk to me," Kron not only shows a willingness to delve deep into her relationship with her mother but to deconstruct, with rare wit and intelligence, the theatrical process on which she has built a career.
This concept of a performance piece undermined and rerouted by an unmanageable force could only work with a thoroughly credible actor portraying that disruptive force. In the disarming Houdyshell, "Well" has much more than that. As was frequently observed of Broadway legend Laurette Taylor, Houdyshell's extreme naturalness makes her seem like someone who just wandered in off the street -- a real flesh-and-blood woman who appears to be yakking away onstage without a script.
Until a key moment better not revealed, Houdyshell alone remains deep in character while the rest of the cast interact with her both as characters in the story and as the actors employed to play them.
Kron is a wry performer with a live-wire, appealing stage manner (her recollections of going to a princess-populated costume party as the Little Match Girl, or the mistake of wearing a Laura Ingalls Wilder calico prairie dress to school are priceless), and the supporting cast all earn their laughs.
But it's Houdyshell who anchors the play and supplies its beating heart. Even in her dialogue-less moments, slumped on her recliner and clucking disapprovingly or chuckling at the memory-driven action being conjured stage right, Houdyshell's inhabitation of Ann Kron is effortless, vivid and complete, creating a complex, contrary character whose magnetic warmth for the other people onstage -- and for the audience -- is readily understandable.
When Lisa relinquishes control to her mother near the close of the play as she reveals confronting truths about her feelings for her, it seems churlish of her as a character but an uncommonly gracious gesture as a writer. And as Houdyshell gives back the final words to Kron in the form of one of Ann's speeches, the gesture is even more affecting. The exchange conveys a whole universe of tender, messy, mother-daughter attachments in just a few beautifully calibrated minutes of stage time.