Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Saturn Returns at the Finborough Theatre

Noah Haidle’s play revisits the same character at three pivotal moments in his life. Gustin Novak is first seen as a man of 88, comparatively sprightly and in good health for a man of his age, but desperately, desperately alone. His wife and daughter are long dead and he has to beg and cajole a young nursing assistant to spend time with him.

The title of the play refers to an astrological phenomenon involving the orbit of Saturn. Every 30 years or so the planet returns to the same position it was at during a person’s birth and, in doing so, it is meant to herald a major event in a person’s life, a test of character, an emotional upheaval.

Haidle uses this idea as jumping-off point from which to interlace scenes of the older Novak with those from two earlier points in his life, both as a young married man of 28 and as a middle-aged widower of 58.

The play, originally staged at the Lincoln Centre in New York in 2008, is infused with a sense of loss. The elderly Novak, living in a house crammed with memories, many of them painful, yearns for company. His middle-aged self is no less needy. He loves his daughter deeply, but their relationship is forever shadowed by the figure of her dead mother and his constant demands end up pushing her away. Even as a younger man Novak’s life is not free from tension; his wife, Loretta, is troubled by the absence of children in their marriage and hints at other losses, a sadness that dogs her days and makes the long hours at home without him tough to bear.

Both the writing and the performances of the actors playing Novak over the three periods of his life (Richard Evans, Nicholas Gecks and Christopher Harper) create a sense of consistency of character – they all perch on the floor in front of the armchair rather than sitting in it. Haidle’s use of echoes, of recurring phrases in the dialogue, is elegant and not overstated, but doesn’t quite compensate for the fact that, to be blunt, Novak, at all points in his life, is a bit of a shit. He’s needy, demanding, self-sabotaging and a teller of awful jokes. His repeated digs at fat women leave a sour taste and his quick, cruel tongue is a source of upset for both his wife and his daughter. He’s an alienating figure, for both the women in his life and, at times, the audience.

Lisa Caruccio Came plays the three female roles, wife, daughter and the young nurse (whose physical resemblance to the daughter is noted), with sensitivity and sure-footedness. On stage for all but the brief moments it takes to change costumes, she ably switches between the three, differentiating them while also suggesting a sense of cohesion in Novak’s relationship with each of these women, something underlined by the fact that the play text requires these three characters be played by the same performer.

The three actors playing Novak go some way to rendering this often spiky and difficult character palatable without ever completely defanging him. Gecks has perhaps the hardest task as the middle aged incarnation of the man, selfish and volatile, yet not without charm, his relationship with his daughter complicated by the pain he still feels at the loss of her mother and his own fear of being alone.

Andrew Lenson’s production for the Finborough is suitably intense, the emotional pitch of the piece building gradually as the three versions of Novak begin to share stage space and eventually start to interact; like small town American versions of Dickensian Christmas spirits they plead across the years with their other selves to act differently, to make other choices, but their voices go unheeded. While the tone of the writing is unfocused in places and Novak is a hard man to love, the cumulative effect of the piece is fairly potent and it succeeds as a study of need and the self-haunting of memory.

Reviewed for musicOMH

No comments: