theater review

Theater Review: An Unsturdy Apologia

Stockard Channing (right) with Hugh Dancy (left) and Talene Monahon in Apologia, at the Laura Pels. Photo: Joan Marcus

Imagine you go to the theater with some friends and then, after the show, adjourn to a bar to talk about the play. Now, there are One-Beer Plays — fine, all right, yes, it was a play, people wore clothes and said things on a stage in a relatively inoffensive manner — and there are Hangover Plays, which can be good or bad but demand hours of talk either way, though the bad ones always mean a higher tab and a worse headache. Alexi Kaye Campbell’s Apologia, now at the Roundabout, is a Hangover Play, and not in a good way. Not that I went to a bar afterwards — I had another play to see that evening, and sometimes it’s just a metaphor, okay? — but if I had, it would have been hard to know where to start. With plays like Apologia, the temptation is to get into the weeds, enumerating every little thing about them that feels inauthentic, manipulative, half-baked, or clichéd — when in fact all those things are just cracks in the plaster. The thing is foundationally unsound. Its very premise betrays a kind of smug cluelessness. It’s less a drama of ideas than it is a collection of cheap, self-satisfied notions, in which several talented actors — and dozens of other working artists and however many paying audience members — are being asked to invest their time.

Apologia premiered in London in 2009 and is set at that time, so now it causes that most annoying kind of knowing laugh in its audience when an artless young character announces, “Things are changing in America, Kristin. We’ve just elected our first African-American president. It’s exciting.” The Kristin that line is addressed to is the play’s protagonist, a feminist art historian and aging hippie (in politics, not in personality), here brought to troubled, acerbic life by Stockard Channing. Channing also gave the play its star power when it was revived last year in London, and to accommodate her performance, Campbell did some rewrites, changing Kristin from a Brit to an American expatriate. Who knows if he also added Kristin’s dry response to the enthusiastic Obama reference — “That is a good thing, it’s true. But let’s wait and see how things turn out in the long run.” — but whatever the case, the laughter that follows that easy dig is complacent and hollow.

Which basically describes the play. Apologia adheres firmly to the well-worn family drama formula: Characters gather in a kitchen or a living room, secrets are revealed, old wounds are opened, and lots of emotional sparks fly before morning comes, usually a chilly dawn in which everyone can see themselves a little better. Here, it’s a kitchen, and the gathering is for Kristin’s birthday. And all the secret-revealing and wound-reopening is triggered by a MacGuffin, I mean a memoir, she’s recently written. The characters tiptoe around it in conversation as if its content is nuclear, but of course we never learn much about what’s in it — we only know what’s not, and that’s any mention of Kristin’s two adult sons, Peter and Simon, or of the fact that she’s a mother at all.

And here’s the faulty fulcrum on which the whole play tries to seesaw back and forth: Was Kristin a bad mother? Did her ardent commitments to her political and professional lives make her a fatally flawed parent, the kind whose kids are irrevocably damaged? Are such commitments even compatible with loving motherhood?

If those questions raise your hackles, I see you. Apologia thinks it’s a smart, even-handed play — that it allows the articulate, passionate, hard-edged Kristin to make her case and for her unhappy sons and their lovers to make theirs — but the whole trial is infuriatingly rigged. Substitute a male actor for Stockard Channing and there is no play. We wouldn’t even be having the conversation. There is no conversation about whether a man’s worldly pursuits might make him a shitty dad. They very well might, but we don’t care. What we do care about is whether or not a woman who has children is willing and able to become a self-sacrificing saint. A professionally successful, personally liberated, and also absent father is too bad, but a mother of the same description is a monster — especially if, like Kristin, she’s opinionated, caustic, and unapologetic. (We’re treated to a literary definition of the play’s title, also the title of Kristin’s memoir, so we know that it doesn’t mean “apology,” but it’s pretty clear that Campbell’s play will eventually force Kristin toward tearful remorse.) Less-than-saintly moms have been getting the short, sharp end of the stick ever since Apollo invented the Athenian justice system by weaving myth’s most misogynist legal defense to get Orestes off for killing Clytemnestra. But somehow, here we still are: with Michael Billington blithely calling Kristin Miller a “monstrous matriarch” in the Guardian, and Kristin’s two traumatized little Orestes-es, coming back home to throw emotional, if not literal, daggers at her.

Watching Channing, I never even got exactly what it is that makes Kristin so monstrous. Apart, that is, from the unforgivable crime of abandoning her children, which is pretty clearly explained by the fact that her Byronic bully of an ex-husband took them away from her. In Channing’s hunched shoulders, quick patter, and wandering gaze (she really never seems to look straight at anyone, and I’m honestly not sure whether that’s a conscious choice), Kristin seems more afraid than anything. She’s still got her prodigious brain, biting wit, and unyielding principles (“Still raping the Third World?” she asks her son Peter, who works for a bank), but she seems to know a storm is coming, and she’s hunkering down, physically and spiritually, to prepare for it. Channing’s performance hints that Kristin always knew what kind of outbursts her memoir might cause, and that she’s both frightened and ready for her sons to come galloping in with their grievances. This self-awareness makes her far more sympathetic than her stiffness and sharpness would seem to allow — I’m going to go ahead and hazard that it makes her more sympathetic than Campbell means her to be. Her barbs at her fellow characters don’t feel all that cruel because they’re basically right. She thinks she’s surrounded by shallow people who don’t know “what it means to fight for something other than [their] own material and domestic well-being” — and she is.

Kristin’s old buddy Hugh is the exception, but he’s also very much peripheral. Played with the most genuine appeal in the production by a droll, bearish John Tillinger, Hugh is a gay academic and a friend of Kristin’s from their youthful radical glory days. He exists to disrupt the mounting tension with innocently racy bon mots, and to head for the loo whenever more important characters need to have it out. Which leaves Peter (Hugh Dancy); his squeaky-clean American girlfriend, Trudi (Talene Monahon); and Claire (Megalyn Echikunwoke), a soap-opera actress who’s dating Kristin’s other son, Simon, whom characters mention with the special social awkwardness reserved for the emotionally distressed. Simon — who’s been “having a rough time” and has been hit harder than the self-reliant Peter by his mother’s book — can’t show up until after everyone else has gone to bed. Because he’s also played by Hugh Dancy, with dead eyes and wet hair in his face. Campbell’s doing some easy skating across Theater 101, in that Kristin’s boys are a kind of Sam Shepard-ian pair of alter egos; the midnight scene she shares with Simon, as she patches up his cut hand, is cribbed from The Seagull; and the mention of Claire’s performance as Nora in a fringe production of A Doll’s House gives Kristin a chance to sigh, “Groundbreaking,” about Ibsen’s story of a wife and mother who walks out on her family.

Except that, again, she didn’t walk out. But neither Peter nor Simon blames, or even seems to remember, their father, whom Kristin describes as “dashing and angry … Emotionally stunted, mentally cruel, [and] chauvinistic.” Instead, what they remember is the fact that after this hypermasculine woodworking poet (oof, swoon) took them away, their mother didn’t pursue them. “We thought you’d come for us,” says the near-catatonic Simon, “Fight for us … Because that’s what we thought parents did … Mothers” — thanks for the clarification — “So we waited and waited … But you never came.”

Dancy — a full-on fantastic actor who deserves much better material — knows what he’s doing when it comes to haggard emotional disturbance. His simultaneously delicate and dangerous Will Graham was a thrilling foil for Mads Mikkelsen’s urbane brutality in the rebooted Hannibal series. But in Apologia, he’s asked to be an angry square as Peter and a shell-shocked zombie as Simon, who uses his nighttime guilt session with mom to tell her a story so simultaneously lurid and hacky (and, you know, All Her Fault), that I found myself writing, “REALLY?!” — Seth Meyers–style — in my notebook. Simon’s basically a psychological weapon in a damp, dingy button-up, and of course he shatters Kristin, then disappears back into the night.

He also participates in one of the lazier aspects of Campbell’s dialogue, which is to make a scene out of one person talking and another person poking them with continuous passive-aggressive two-word questions. “Did you?”, “Are you?”, “Will it?”, “Do you?”, “Must you?”, “Is she?” He’s not the only character to do it, and Simon’s excuse for such laconic hostility could be his mental state, but it’s not a good look when you want to smack the character who’s supposed to have been deeply wounded. Nor when the character who’s supposed to carry all the play’s earnestness — all its belief that, despite our failings and traumas, we can learn from and love each other — comes off as an sentimental, underwritten twit.

That’s Trudi, the American girlfriend. She’s clearly intended to be the play’s conscience — and she’s one of those evangelical Christian characters that are meant to emerge as naïve sages, making all of us skeptics feel bad about our prejudgments — but she’s simply a mess of a character from start to finish. First, there’s almost no way to deliver the guileless dialogue Campbell has written for her without sounding either dim or, again, passive-aggressive (the “I’m being dim on purpose” choice). It’s a disingenuous attempt to write an ingenuous character, and Monahon is stuck coming off sweet and flat as a sugar cookie. She’s also so girlish that she reads as Peter’s kid sister, or even his daughter, rather than his girlfriend (they call each other “sweetie” a bunch but have zero chemistry), and director Daniel Aukin has her play everything up in her head voice and up on her toes. So she’s a foil for Kristin, sure, but she needn’t be a girl-next-door cartoon. All the “golly gee” fluttering undermines any chance Monahon might have to make us really listen to Trudi, and when it turns out that the white-touristy birthday present she bought for Kristin in Liberia (it’s an African tribal mask) is in fact redolent with deep, mother-specific meaning, the moment is supposed to be climactically moving, but instead comes off like Aukin shot it through that Instagram superzoom filter with the cheesy keyboard music and the stars.

Here we are though, four metaphorical beers in and still not through the list of all Apologia’s miscalculations, when in the end — to quote Claire as she draws a comparison between Simon’s shaky emotional state and a crumbling building — “the edifice was weak.” “When there’s an earthquake,” Claire muses, “I mean, that’s what does the damage, that’s the thing that brings the building down … But then they find out corners were cut in the construction of it. Shoddy work, that kind of thing.” Yes, exactly that kind of thing. Aukin doesn’t do any earth-quaking: He and his designers try to make Apologia go down as smoothly as possible, giving us the familiar domestic battleground and all the well-known snappy rhythms and emotional swells. But it’s a con, and a con that thinks it’s high-minded when in fact its very existence is predicated on worn-out dramaturgy and essentially sexist argument. Apologia might look like a thoughtful play, sound like one, smell like one, but, as one of it’s characters might put it — is it?

Apologia is at the Laura Pels Theatre through December 16.

Theater Review: An Unsturdy Apologia