I would give the current revival of the Anne Bogart-Ellen Lauren collaboration a mixed but generally positive review. I would give the talk-back after Tuesday night’s show five stars.
Room is a one-woman show about Virginia Woolf, from a script drawn from Woolf’s writings, selected by Bogart and adapted by Joceyln Clark. Lauren starts the show in an aisle seat in the audience, severely dressed with a severe expression on her face. The only thing distinguishing her from a really mean English teacher (or Miss Hathaway in the Beverly Hillbillies) is the spotlight. There is no curtain on the nearly bare stage; just three huge scrims of the palest blue and an armchair. The play begins when, from row F one hears a commanding “GOOD EVENING.”
The show is largely drawn from A Room of One’s Own and Moments of Being and, I think every word uttered is a quotation from Woolf (although the interludes about a pear tree were said to be from Between the Acts and were not familiar to me, to my shame). The first few minutes are strangely discomfiting: Lauren is stern and a bit goggle-eyed and the play feels like parody, although it’s hard to discern what’s being parodied. However, as the play unfolded, the uncertainty about what we were to think and feel took an encouraging shape: the play deals honestly (albeit indirectly—I wanted more) with war, alludes to mental illness, and is direct about sexual abuse without imposing a reading and always, always with tremendous interest in and respect for Woolf as a mind.
Lauren’s movements are jerky and constrained and, as quickly becomes apparent, she is restricting herself to a very limited range of gestures: a Cassandra-like pose, hands upraised; a pedagogical gesture, finger pointing down at an imaginary text; an inward twist of pain, hands folded together and low to protect her most private parts and thoughts.
Some of the editorial decisions struck me as brilliant. All the names of women writers are stripped from the famous opening of A Room of One’s Own, so we just have the catalog of what one could do (anecdote, mention, etc.) without the list of forgotten women that would distract a 21st century theater audience (even one as literary as those likely to attend a one-woman show on Woolf). She recites the long quotation from Jane Eyre and Woolf’s ensuing commentary brilliantly and the gothic lighting in that segment is fabulous. There is a gorgeous sound cue of an air raid, during which Lauren lies on stage, breathing hard. I only wish that afterwards she’d recited from “Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid”—I longed for that 1, 2, 3, 4… that Woolf uses in that essay to mark how impossible it is to think during a bombing. Toward the end of the play, Lauren works herself into a frenzy of movement, a kind of final crescendo of word and gesture, emphasizing, over and over again, how hard it is to know a person.
At other moments, because there is no clear through-line to follow, I found myself a little bored. Sometimes, because Woolf is the chief intellectual companion of my life, I could float off on Woolf’s words, even when I disagreed with Lauren’s interpretations; sometimes Lauren brought new meaning to familiar phrases; sometimes I just worried about what my students in English 3502: Modern British Writing thought.
But the talk back was absolutely brilliant.
Lauren and Bogart described rehearsing in Bogart’s upstate home where the rule was that Lauren was to work on memorizing the script then, at some point in the day, to come upon Bogart in a room and intone “GOOD EVENING.” From there, Lauren would recite all that she’d thus far memorized, stop, and withdraw. Bogart then followed Lauren to a new room where they’d discuss what they’d done before.
The strangely limited choreography came from a series of 29 photographs of Woolf, the poses of which Lauren memorized. These were limited back down to 9 gestures which then became the language of movement for the play.
They said that they wanted Woolf to seem old-fashioned, limited as the play began and that then, as we were more and more confined in our seats and we saw, more and more, how much she had in her mind, how bravely she faced her life—its beauty and its despair—we would see that she was far more free than we.
I left thinking the show was interesting, feeling that the thought behind the show was brilliant—beyond what I’d been able to detect as an audience member. Was that failure mine or that of the production? I don’t know.
Room is playing through Sunday, 3/27, at the Julia Miles Theater on 55th and 9th and, if you’re interested, there are tons of discount codes on the theater’s website.
Here's an interview with Ellen Lauren:
In New York magazine, Scott Brown says:
Lauren's delivery sounds a wee bit Mrs. Doubtfire at first, and for a good half-hour we wonder if we're watching nothing more than highfalutin semaphore. But halfway through, the flint hits the steel, and the show's soul catches the flame. Room isn't a perfect translation of Woolf's gestalt, but watching Lauren climb the walls of Neil Patel's terrifyingly empty set leaves one images, both haunting and heroic, of a great mind abandoned to itself — free and unmoored, equally.