Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Dresser

(James Carpenter and Ken Ruta. Photo by Kevin Berne.)

San Jose Rep’s advertisements for The Dresser (directed by Rick Lombardo) made me assume the show would be a two-hander. It isn’t. The big names, James Carpenter and Ken Ruta, are actually supported by a sizeable ensemble, which came as a relief at first, as the play runs for over two and a half hours. But now I almost wish they weren’t.

Admittedly, the group comes in handy at times. Without other people, the play, about "Sir," a seasoned tragedian (Ruta), and Norman, his costumer (Carpenter), might never get out of the dressing room. And in staging a play-within-a-play—specifically, Sir’s 227th performance of King Lear—scene designer Kent Dorsey creates a clever backstage world. The characters’ stage faces stage-right; their audience is suggested only through a tiny proscenium far upstage. Wings, curtain ropes and stage lights comprise the space we see—an eminently suitable choice for a play in which the backstage world is the real world.

But aside from that mechanical function, the ensemble parts actually come more alive in Norman’s witty telling than they do in live appearance. The problem is not just that playwright Ronald Harwood allots almost all his verbally acute lines to Norman; many of the other characters’ motivations and backgrounds either appear too late or just don’t make sense. For so many people, young and old, male and female, to be plausibly attracted to or even in love with Sir, he would have to evince a certain personal magnetism—at least, more than Ruta does in his gruff portrayal—to make up for his substantial years. In its present staging, his power feels contrived.

We are, of course, meeting Sir when he’s fallen “ill”—which means some combination of senility and the strain of performing in England during WWII air raids, when so many other actors (!) have been killed. So as with the other characters, it is Norman’s vision that paints the fullest picture of Sir. (Ruta milks his punch lines much more skillfully than he suggests nuance.)

Carpenter’s performance makes this show. He is a master of technique, able to convey everything from Norman’s fascinating combination of pomposity and self-loathing to the rich musicality of English inflection (without going overboard on the accent). His fastidious yet fearful gestures epitomize theatrical embodiment. And he uses his every interaction to establish the possibility of his revelation at the end of the play, even as no other character even attempts such a journey.

So even if The Dresser had had only these two characters, as I initially assumed, the way Harwood writes, a monologue might be preferable.

The Dresser continues (Tuesday to Sunday, various times) at San Jose Repertory Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose. For tickets ($35 - $74), visit www.sjrep.com

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