All through "Death and the Maiden" I had trouble taking what happened on stage seriously. I kept imagining I was watching parlor games in Beverly Hills.
Mind you, I had read the program note that explained that Ariel Dorfman's play takes place "in a country that is probably Chile, but could be any country that has given itself a democratic government just after a long period of dictatorship."
Nothing on stage, however, persuaded me we were South of the Border or anyplace just emerging from fascism. Everything seemed so terribly American. When men whose manner is relaxed, unmistakably American discuss torture under the old regime, it makes no sense. When someone who works hard at being a Regular Guy as Gene Hackman starts quoting Nietzsche, it's hilarious. Regular Guys will eat quiche long before they quote Nietzsche.
Presumably no attempt has been made to give the play a Latin American aura because its concerns are universal - the need to bring political criminals to justice, to exorcise demons of the past. But nothing in the recent American past jibes with a play in which a woman recognizes the voice of a man who tortured and raped her under the recently ousted regime.
As it is, the play is largely a guessing game. Is this man the torturer or isn't he? Dorfman is more interested in playing theatrical games than delineating character. (The play's cheap sexual content attests to the threadbare quality of his imagination.)
We know, for example, that the woman's husband is a lawyer heading a commission investigating the old regime's crimes. He piled up enough dough in that regime to buy the snazzy beachhouse Tony Walton has designed. How could he have prospered under the fascists and still be a suitable investigator for their democratic successors? Is the new regime a sham?
Why is he so sympathetic to his wife's alleged torturer? Is it because all men are indeed pigs? Does testosterone bind more firmly than the marriage vows?
The performances only accentuate the hollowness of the writing. If Hackman comes off the most convincing of the three, it is perhaps because he has the least to do. More important, apart from quoting Nietzsche, he doesn't have to deliver any of the play's humor.
Poor Glenn Close and Richard Dreyfuss do. Dorfman's humor is catty, woefully inappropriate to his pretensions. Dreyfuss is suitably smarmy as the all too ingratiating lawyer, but at no time do we imagine he has the weight for the investigator's job.
Whether she's being arch or overwrought, Close invariably yields to the play's blatant theatricality. Was this theatricality what attracted Mike Nichols to the play? Was it the political "ideas"? Has he been spending too much time in Beverly Hills?
Broadway can always do with a good strong mainstream melodrama, not to mention an ice-smooth star vehicle, and in Ariel Dorfman's "Death and the Maiden," which opened at the Brooks Atkinson Theater last night, it found both - in spades.
Indeed the melodrama, as whipped up by Mike Nichols' steel-hand staging, proves crowd-pleasingly effective, and the piece itself is not merely a star vehicle - it's a three-star vehicle, a troika built for speed.
As a serious play it has as many holes in it as a Gruyere cheese renting out as a rest home for mice - but what it does it does superbly. It aims to please and seeks to provide a little semi-intellectual titillation on the side, and on both counts it's right on target.
It plays happily with themes of guilt, torture and revenge, juggles tales of rape and degradation, and sets them all in the middle of a kind of mystery. It is hokum, but lovely Hollywood-style hokum, with only camera-angles, close-ups and movie intensity missing.
A woman (Glenn Close) is waiting for her husband (Richard Dreyfuss) in a plush beachhouse in some South American republic only recently regained for democracy. They have something to celebrate - an already chilled bottle of Veuve Cliquot is on the table - but the man is late.
At last he arrives with his news. The president has invited him (he is a lawyer, we gather) to serve on a commission on human rights, looking into the iniquities of the nation's now finally overthrown police state. He explains his lateness - he had a flat, and with no spare tire or even jack, he had to beg a lift from a passing good Samaritan. They go to bed.
Later that same night the good Samaritan, a doctor (Gene Hackman), turns up again at the door, for no special reason, except he had heard of his new friend's appointment on the radio, and had driven 40 minutes out his way to offer congratulations.
Likely? Well...still - now Close, who doesn't see him but only hears his voice, knows immediately (or thinks she knows) that he is the doctor who tortured and raped her 15 years ago. Likely? Well...still - so after Hackma has been persuaded by Dreyfuss to stay the night, Close gets up, steals into his room, knocks him out with some handly blunt instrument, drags his inert body into the living room, gags him and binds him fast to a kitchen chair. Easy? Try it!
She then goes outside and gets a cassette from his car radio. As she thought - it is Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" Quartet, the very same music that he liked to play when he tortured his victims. Obviously, she has nabbed the right man!
Hackman wakes up in a state of bound surprise, Dreyfuss wakes up also not a little startled, and Close wakes up with that wan, white fury that so distinguished her in the movie "Fatal Attraction."
Now she has to convince her husband and exact her revenge. Has she got the right man? Does her husband believe in the doctor's innocence or guilt? Or does he care?
But then do we? All we are interested in is seeing Close be vengeful, Hackman be distraught and Dreyfuss be uxoriously devious.
Of course, the play is as up to the minute as today's headlines - such plays always are - but just as headlines can sometimes prove very superficial, so "Death and the Maiden" shows more facility than insight or even craft.
It was originally staged at the tiny upstairs theater at the Royal Court in London, and in that claustrophobic space I can well believe that Juliet Stevenson (an actress of rather more power and range than Glenn Close) in a much acclaimed performance made the piece seem a little more - what's the word - authentic, perhaps, and less glib, than here.
The Argentina-born Dorfman, who is now a Chilean citizen, is a formidable human rights activist and this in itself gives "Death and the Maiden" a special imprimatur, and the actors, nudged along frantically by Nichols, do the rest.
Close's frantic performance may be on one note, but it is a note shrilled with consummate skill, and Dreyfuss - who always seems so happy just to be on stage - plays ambiguity as if it were a trump card. Hackman has rather less to do, although his persecutor (if persecutor he is) turned victim has many moments of thwarted power.
Tony Walton's setting - including a mirrored front-curtain that seems a direct steal from Boris Aronson's "Cabaret" - is a pleasantly appropriate combination of the lush and the sparse, which could be a metaphor for a play essentially of lush action and sparse thought. Yet, for all that, a play that on its own modest terms possesses thrills, spills and passion. Just as some cheap novels can be a good read, "Death and the Maiden" is a good see.
In "Death and the Maiden," the new play at the Brooks Atkinson Theater, the Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman tells the story of a Latin American woman, Paulina Salas, who is thrown together by chance with a man, Dr. Miranda, whom she believes to be the police-state thug who repeatedly raped and tortured her 15 years earlier. Paulina ties up and gags Dr. Miranda in her living room, threatens him with a gun, then puts him on "trial" for his presumed crimes, not the least of which was pumping electric current through her body to the accompaniment of the Schubert quartet that gives Mr. Dorfman's play its double-barreled title.
Given this tale -- one born of the author's own experiences as a witness to the horrors of the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile -- it is no small feat that the director Mike Nichols has managed to transform "Death and the Maiden" into a fey domestic comedy. But what kind of feat, exactly? History should record that Mr. Nichols has given Broadway its first escapist entertainment about political torture. He has also allowed three terrific actors, welcome recruits to the stage, to practice artistic escapism of their own. Glenn Close (Paulina), Gene Hackman (Dr. Miranda) and Richard Dreyfuss (as Paulina's husband, Gerardo) all display their most charming star personae in lieu of acting, as if they were running for public office instead of animating characters locked in a harrowing struggle for survival.
So wide is the gap between the tense, life-and-death tenor of the play's text and the airy, bantering tone of the production that the packed house can only respond (and does) with absolute bewilderment. At the performance I attended, there was a severe coughing epidemic that might signal a public-health crisis were it not for the fact that the symptom was absent at the other plays I've seen this week. As for the laughter, it had a manic sound. The distinguished actors, not to mention the grave events in Mr. Dorfman's script, promise an audience that something of moment will happen onstage. When the drama never comes, theatergoers can hardly be blamed for overresponding to whatever stimulus they can find, even if that consolation amounts to small, bleak jokes incidental to the author's intentions.
Those intentions are not hard to decipher. "Death and the Maiden" is aimed at the jugular and devoid of the magical realism that has distinguished some of Mr. Dorfman's fiction. It's an unpretentious suspense melodrama, as slam-bang in its desired effects as "Wait Until Dark" or "Deathtrap" or even Ms. Close's most successful Hollywood vehicle, "Fatal Attraction." Set in an isolated beach house in a country that has just overthrown its dictator for a fledgling democratic government, the play is meant to keep the audience guessing until (and even past) its denouement. Is Dr. Miranda really the torturer who long ago harmed a blindfolded Paulina, or is Paulina simply indulging a paranoid fantasy symptomatic of the psychological damage caused by her ordeal? Does Paulina's husband, a human-rights lawyer, try to stop his wife from taking vengeance because he reveres legal justice, as he says, or does he have some hidden agenda?
Except for the contrived setup that lands Dr. Miranda in Gerardo and Paulina's house in the first place, "Death and the Maiden" is as tautly constructed as a mousetrap. And it's a mousetrap designed to catch the conscience of an international audience at a historic moment when many more nations than Chile are moving from totalitarian terror to fragile freedom. Underneath the questions in Mr. Dorfman's plot are more urgent ones not unlike those raised by Caryl Churchill's recent drama of post-Ceausescu Romania, "Mad Forest." If the victims of police-state crimes take the law into their own hands, do they sink to the level of their former oppressors and endanger their nation's new prospects for democracy? Yet if they fail to take that revenge, do they invite the historical amnesia that might allow fascism to take root again someday?
Mr. Dorfman does not patly resolve these conundrums any more than he does his plot. What makes "Death and the Maiden" ingenious is his ability to raise such complex issues within a thriller that is full of action and nearly devoid of preaching. But the play cannot say anything whatsoever if the dramatic vehicle for its ideas -- the grueling high-stakes war of wills between Paulina and her captive -- remains inert.
In Mr. Nichols's production, nothing seems at stake and no character has an ambiguous second or third dimension. Though all three stars are well cast in principle, they all give similarly superficial performances, ingratiating to a fault. Paulina is such a great role that it is hard to understand how an actress as smart, talented and ambitious as Ms. Close could dribble it away. While her cheeks sometimes moisten with tears (in the immaculate Norma Shearer manner), and though she lowers her voice in rage and, more often, raises it to convey vaguely neurotic sarcasm, she is too genteel and controlled to suggest that Paulina might be teetering on the edge of madness or, more important, that she might be a true avenging fury, capable of actually using her gun.
Without those intense passions, she can neither move us with her remembrance of her unspeakable suffering nor, at the more primitive, "Jagged Edge" level, keep us guessing about what will happen next. Indeed, there's nothing in Ms. Close's performance here, a few gutteral impersonations of her torturer's obscenities aside, that wouldn't serve equally well the temporarily distraught newlywed of "Barefoot in the Park."
Mr. Hackman, an actor abundantly capable of conveying menace (and most anything else), is a gregarious, good-natured Dr. Miranda who never seems remotely guilty of having been a sadistic Dr. Mengele. In the least important role, Mr. Dreyfuss inherits the evening's laughs by default. When "Death and the Maiden" is stripped of its Costa-Gavras-style suspense, its secondary repartee about Gerardo's sexist treatment of his wife, the most wooden writing in the play, is thrust center stage. Mr. Dreyfuss soon finds himself performing a comic-book version of Torvald in "A Doll's House," driving Ms. Close at one slapstick juncture to dropping a tray of dishes in a sink.
Although Mr. Nichols's choreography of the action is not dissimilar to that of Lindsay Posner's current and terrifying London production, he makes no effort to replicate its blood-curdling, locked-room atmosphere. This version, unlike that one, is played with an intermission (oddly inserted one scene into Act II) and in mostly bright lighting. Only in the play's coda, which is set before a proscenium-high mirror, does the staging achieve a chill, though the use of that mirror, both here and in London, owes a huge debt to Harold Prince's similar evocation of incipient totalitarianism in "Cabaret."
No doubt Mr. Nichols would argue that his bouncy "Death and the Maiden" is not an incorrect interpretation of the play, just an unorthodox one, in the way that, say, his film version of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" offered a funnier though still valid alternative to the Broadway original. But what exactly is the point of his jokey take on a play whose use of the word death in its title is anything but ironic? In this tedious trivialization of Ariel Dorfman's work, even the glamorous beach-house set and heavenly Technicolor lighting seem designed, like everything else, for no purpose greater than gazing at stars.