James Naughton has consistently proven to be a sturdy, reliable and quite often underrated actor who nearly always delivers polished performances built upon a confident masculinity.
He does so once again in the world premiere of “Cedars,” a new one-person drama by Erik Tarloff that is playing on the Berkshire Theatre Group’s Fitzpatrick Main Stage in Stockbridge, Mass. Naughton is the main reason to visit “Cedars,” as he singlehandedly carries the audience along on this tale of a somewhat unlikable middle-aged man reviewing the successes and failures of his life at the bedside of his dying and comatose father at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles. Almost as interesting is the director for this production, his daughter, the actress Kiera Naughton, who clearly knows her father’s strengths and helps him employ them shrewdly and winningly in this production.
I was less than impressed with Tarloff’s play, which is essentially an extended monologue with a few twists or turns thrown in to sustain interest, but it tends to cover well-worn territory in the story of a once hot-shot lawyer who finds himself being phased out at this firm, divorced from his wife of many years, alienated from his children, playing the cad in his new dating relationships and bearing a lifetime of resentment for a frequently absent father and an out-of-control mother.
The way Tarloff both withholds and doles out the family’s secrets to maximize audience surprise is a bit awkward and unbelievable, as when Naughton’s Gabe tells his father after dropping big hints in earlier scenes, “as you probably have guessed, that case I have been working on.” It seems very unlikely Gabe would say that to his father—whether or not the father can hear him—as the father does indeed have a close association with that case and would know that his son is involved in it one way or the other. It’s clearly done to add some suspense to the show and like several other key moments doesn’t quite ring true.
Where the play does succeed is in depicting Gabe’s relationships with his family, as we at least get to hear his impressions and feelings about those nearest and dearest to him. Naughton depicts Gabe’s struggle to figure out how he arrived at this point in life and why he feels so distant from most of the people around him. Naughton believably conveys Gabe’s initial discomfort at having to visit his perhaps brain-dead father at all, with his underlying anger occasionally boiling to surface particularly as the unknowing but well-meaning nurses tell him what a nice father he seems to have. As Naughton demonstrates, such comments are among the trigger points that set Gabe on edge. The actor also quite nicely portrays Gabe’s slowly-growing willingness to face some of these issue, which is frequently countered by the character’s protective layers of cool confidence and hypermasculinity.
One of the playwright’s seeming missteps is in revealing some of the environment in which Gabe and his sister were raised. As Gabe shares some specific incidents with his father, they seem frankly, embarrassingly mundane. Most people would probably be able to report enduring just as many or even more such situations. Unless these incidents are code for other events or represent Gabe’s unwillingness to admit to even more harrowing situations, it seems odd that such an intelligent man would carry such incidents around as baggage. Otherwise, and I admit that this is possible since the play is set in California, Gabe comes off being as superficial as any of the real housewives of Los Angeles.
Fortunately, Kiera Naughton has come up with an ingenious way of staging the play. The father’s hospital bed remains unseen throughout the play. It appears to be located approximately just across the footlights toward where the audience is seated. As a result, though Gabe is speaking to this father, it has the effect that he is speaking directly to us, which allows for eye contact with the audience and direct address. In addition, the daughter Naughton has worked with set designer Hugh Landwehr to determine that less is more. The hospital room setting consists of essentially two visitors’ chairs, a floor lamp and a bedside table, yet this minimalism manages to create the sense of a sterile, somewhat modern hospital room. There is also the projection on the back wall of the room’s large window which, in a colorful abstract drawing, depicts a commanding view of downtown Los Angeles. As the play progresses, the view through that window becomes less specific, offering opaque views and multiply-colored views, which nonetheless convey both the brightness and the smogginess of life in LA.
Solomon Weisband’s lighting significantly contributes to the California effect, while often indicating the time of day as Gabe arrives late or unexpectedly stays longer than he intended. Costume designer Laurie Churba Kohn dresses Naughton in a collection of business suits and casual wear that show the character’s vision of himself as he proceeds from polished lawyer to someone more involved in family tragedy than he would perhaps desire. Scott Killian’s score struck me as unobtrusive though pleasantly helpful for the various scene changes that nearly always required a costume change and a slight set adjustment
The good news, however, is that James Naughton can carry an entire show on his very able shoulders and serious talent. He offers an effective portrayal of a self-absorbed man whose been able to gloss over his personal shortcomings and remain conveniently unaware of the struggles of those around him, particularly his wife and children, who seems to view as mere accessories to his rise. The exact reasons for his decline at work are never all specified, but it seems that he may have lost interest in or even alienated some clients, or as we learn much later in the play, he has, whether out of guilt or out of a need for affirmation, taken on some familial responsibilities that he was emotionally not able to handle. We learn the depth of his emptiness and unfulfillment by the end of the play and, while it was something we readily suspected, Naughton does a fine job of expressing Gabe’s emotions, even if it is only for a few brief minutes.
Father and daughter make a promising team and perhaps they will have additional opportunities to work together in the future. This appears to be Keira Naughton’s second professional directing experience, but it is delivered with some insight and intelligence.
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