“The Gift” Not Everyone’s Present
At the Theatre with Audrey Linden
Australian playwright Johanna Murray-Smith’s “The Gift” opened for its U. S. Premier at The Geffen Playhouse. “The Gift” didn’t quite gel. Wrong size, wrong color. Wrong something. "The Gift" was directed by well-known director, Maria Aitkin, who kept her talented actors moving at a fast pace, but something in the writing, didn’t work.
The writing was flawed and the play became a heady trip of an hour and a half with no benefit of an intermission. An intermission would have served to break the two distinct acts and would have given the audience a much needed respite. The ensemble cast of four actors which included Kathy Baker, as Sadie, who served as the narrator, Chris Mulkey, as her husband Ed, Jaime Ray Newman as Chloe, and James Van Der Beek as Martin are accomplished actors and did a credible job. But, the play with all its “wordiness” failed to reach a satisfying emotional arc in the second half and we were denied an emotional catharsis.
I will not divulge the secret of the “gift” but by the time the younger couple Martin and Chloe decided the gift they wanted from Sadie and Ed, I did not care. The set up was contrived and there was no payoff. There was a strong moral issue, but the explanations and the arguments, as to the “why” of the gift were not convincing or compelling and diluted any shock value. I would love to discuss "why" but to do so would give the surprise away.
The play centers around Sadie and Ed as the affluent older couple who are set, comfortable and bored with their lives and with each other. They have it all but have nothing. "Money has not made me more interesting." Sadie, well- acted by Kathy Baker, tossed verbal knives at her husband. Some of these zingers were witty, hit the mark and showed Murray-Smith at her wordsmith best. She shines in comedy. Poor Ed is not admired by his wife. They have sunk into a familiarity that robs their relationship of respect. “For better or worse but not for lunch” laments Ed.
The couple is on a vacation for their 25th anniversary at a tropical luxury resort “a zoo for rich people” in an effort to rekindle the spark when they unexpectedly meet the younger couple Chloe and Martin. The mindless Sadie ,“I facilitate his greatness.” is contrasted with Chloe, the journalist “who thinks like an intellectual and writes like a poet.” Chloe and Martin are a “creative” and dynamic thinking couple very much in lust with each other and are living on the edge. They won the luxury trip. Ed made his fortune selling something practical, wood working machinery. He has no appreciation for the arts. Martin is a poor up and coming conceptual artist, a genius who does installations. He and Chloe live for art. Murray-Smith gives us “comfort vs passion.”
Ed and Sadie longed to have children. "The miracle of a child might have overcome the boredom". Chloe and Martin have a young daughter, Eleanor. There is much esoteric talk about the arts and the value of art in life. Art has little value to Ed except for the improvisational jazz of the great Miles Davis. Sadie marvels at what a “little dot” in Impressionism can do.
Through this chance meeting the lives of the four are changed when Martin saves Ed from drowning. Overcome with being given a second chance at life, Martin vows to give the younger couple any gift they want. They meet a year later on Ed’s “second” birthday and he has changed dramatically. He and Sadie have ignited the spark and Ed has emerged with a new found appreciation of the arts.
The long and rambling intellectual conversations became a left brain head trip and robbed the characters and the play of immediacy. These passages might have made for better reading. The characters lived in their heads, and it did not matter if one couple was practical and unthinking and the other brilliant and creative. Both were reduced to esoteric verbosity.
As Chloe and Martin come to collect their "gift," they explained and over-rationalized the “what” and “why” of their request. Any emotional engagement was lost. Had Murray-Smith given us some real moments. I might have been involved. Ed’s references s to Martin and Chloe as “entrepreneurs of the soul” were a bit much as were Martin’s Faustian speeches “life without inquiry is death.” These sentiments were restated and overstated in so many words. Both couples became the victims of a writer’s cliché. Martin as the” leveler” said, “You make too much of it.” I agree. Murray-Smith made too much of it. Perhaps as she states in her play, one has to let go of some things.
There was some excellent, sharp and witty dialog between Sadie and Ed in the first half. Chris Mulkey’s, Ed, rose above the cliché and bulky material. He stood out and gave us emotional crescendos and his acting was brilliant. He was real and believable. Baker’s comedic timing was superb.
Derek Mc Lane’s sparse and modern set worked well to establish both the luxury resort and Los Angeles home of Sadie and Ed with white sofas, a bar, a panoramic view of the city lights etc. Howard Werner’s projections were fabulously alive and gave us the much needed movement as transitions. The ocean scenes were fantastic and added excitement and suspense. Kudos to the overall production values. Unfortunately, while Murray-Smith has some interesting ideas about life, art, artists, personal responsibility, the production was uneven and over-worked. Would I want to spend another night with these four people? No.
"The Gift" at The Geffen Playhouse runs through March 10th, 10886 Le Conte. For tickets and show times call 310-208-5454
Audrey Linden is a writer, actress and singer. She can be seen in a long-running “Associated Tax Resolution” commercial, two “Little Caesars” spots, a “Teva International Pharmaceutical” short, Gene Simmons’ “Family Jewels,” “America’s Court with Judge Ross,” VHS “Tough Love 2,”etc.
Audrey teaches ON CAMERA COMMERCIAL WORKSHOPS through the City of Beverly Hills, Community Services. To register, call 310-285-6850. Her classes are held at 241 Moreno Dr. B.H. 90212. The next class starts January 10th For more information, contact Audrey at firstname.lastname@example.org
The class in for 8 weeks @ $118 from 6:45-9:15 PM ($5 materials fee payable to instructor first night).