The Naked Truth

The Blue Room reveals a lot of skin but little about modern relationships

The plot of David Hare's The Blue Room might be described as "six degrees of penetration." In the play's opening scene, an off-duty cab driver gets it on with a prostitute. Next the cab driver seduces a French au pair, then the au pair has a sexual encounter with a student who is having an affair with a politician's wife, and so on.

Because The Blue Room depicts bedfellows from whores to blue bloods, one might think Hare is going for a sociopolitical commentary of sorts, but no such luck. The play is an adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler's 1897 play La Ronde, a scathing exposé about the decay of European values. Since Schnitzler was a doctor, the play also dealt with the plague of the day: syphilis. Surprisingly this modern-day adaptation imitates the Old World values more than it carves out new ways of looking at society. A politician offers his wife this old chestnut: "There are two kinds of women -- the kind you sleep with and the kind you marry." The female characters are superficially trapped in the outdated underpinnings of their social and cultural roles. The au pair and prostitute are for the most part flat characters, whereas the actress and politician's wife get to be catty, clever, and three-dimensional. Topics such as sexually transmitted diseases are safely framed within a few erroneous references to being safe and "hygiene."

If The Blue Room is not intended to reinvigorate the social and political commentary of its predecessor, perhaps it is intended to be theatrically innovative. While Hare preserves the sexual round robin structure of the original play, he departs from Schnitzler in one fascinating and promising way: Instead of a full cast, only two actors play the five couples. In GableStage's production, David Mann and Stephanie McNeil play five different couples in a myriad of fairly predictable sexual scenarios. Our protagonists straddle the standard heterosexual stigmata (age, marital, and socioeconomic differences). Their interactions are at times humorous, the fast-paced staging is eye-catching, but an abundance of unjustified nudity and the sexual objectification of the key female role keeps The Blue Room from reaching its dramatic potential.

Don't worry, there's plenty more objectification where this photo came from
Don't worry, there's plenty more objectification where this photo came from

Since the century-old scandal of the play's origins (it was initially banned), The Blue Room seems to cause a fuss wherever it beds down. The 1998 West End production became an overhyped media event thanks to a five-second, dimly lit glance at Nicole Kidman's hindquarters. While GableStage cannot offer theatergoers such high-priced derrière, this production has its own angle: lots of nudity on and off the stage. Besides full frontal nudity during the play, both actors undress on either side of the stage between scenes. If what was happening on-stage were more dramatically compelling, this dressing and undressing in the wings could be seen as an extended metaphor for the transformations that take place on-stage. As it stands, this display comes off as merely exhibitionist, serving no artistic purpose. Because McNeil has the thin, angular body of a model, every time she rushes to the wings to change clothes, it feels as if we are watching some backstage footage from the fashion channel.

Nudity, like any other theatrical element, must have a purpose. McNeil peeling off G-strings and tight skirts in the wings seems to be nothing more than eye candy; this unfortunate directorial choice further undermines her already shaky characterization. If Hare had kept the original ten actors, McNeil could easily have been cast in the role of the model. She adds dimension to this role by giving the ditzy 17-year-old a serious side. The model's scene with a playwright is both funny and touching, but McNeil is not as adept at morphing into different characters as Mann is. Despite her radical costume changes, I am consistently aware of this one person's presence on-stage. She has one way of adjusting her skirt, one way of crossing and uncrossing her legs -- whether she is a prostitute or a politician's wife.

On the other hand, David Mann gives us a taste of the interpretive acrobatics these actors were intended to perform. Despite the provincial and sketchy au pair-and-student scene, which is a total throwaway, Mann manages to look quite different in each scene. He thoroughly and fluidly transforms from a narcissistic playwright to a heart-of-steel cabby and more, evincing a distinct and elaborate lexicon of gesture and style for each character. His accents are flawless as well. Mann has requisite spontaneity and improvisational skills for such shape-shifting on-stage. Directorially speaking, the male actor is given considerably more ground to cover here. Mann gets to be frumpy, despicable, endearing, elegant, and more. Odd that the female characters are all portrayed as physically attractive, even stunning. Had the role been developed differently, her femininity could have taken on a much more unconventional and interesting shape.

Maybe if we were in Milwaukee, nudity on-stage would be enough to get us out of the house, but in South Florida, where there's more flesh revealed per capita than any other area of the United States, we need a little something more rather than less.

 
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