Review: The Approach at Spoleto Festival USA
By Perry Tannenbaum
It’s tempting to declare Mark O’Rowe’s new play, THE APPROACH, a retro or even misogynistic drama. Now in its US premiere at Spoleto Festival USA through June 12, from the Dublin-based Landmark Productions, O’Rowe’s elegantly circular piece – which he himself directs – does little to push against the stereotyped notion that women chatter endlessly about their men, their family, old times, how wonderful they still look, and how happy or unhappy they are.
Except for the endless part: we peep in on a revolve of five or six dialogues between Anna, Cora, and Denise within the compact space of about 65 minutes. With the exception of a reconciliation scene between Denise and Anna, who turn out to be long-estranged sisters, all the meetings seem to have begun with two of the women bumping into one another by accident. All the scenes, except the last, end with effusions on how wonderful it was to get back together and earnest promises to be back in touch soon – always preceded by abrupt sorry-gotta-goes and never followed with any follow-up.
Not that the caring for their men goes any deeper. In three of the dialogues, the women are asked to cite examples of their special man’s special thoughtfulness. Anna tells Cora about the time Oliver surprised her by creating a crossword puzzle with clues that unlocked intimacies that only the two of them could know. We laugh when Cora passes this story along to Denise as exemplifying her special man’s specialness. And when this running joke completes its cycle after a number of years, when Denise gets back together we’re a little surprised that Anna has little reaction – and no recognition – when her sister tells the crossword tale.
The joke is on us at that point, for the adorable crossword anecdote didn’t begin with Anna, either. Anna is the touchstone in the other repeated motif as O’Rowe completes the circle of his story. The final scene between Cora and Anna, like the opening scene between the same women, begins with Cora admiring Anna’s bracelet and Anna taking it off to give Cora a closer look. O’Rowe subtly emphasizes that this is the same bracelet as before, for not only is the store where Anna says she bought it the same, but so is the other place where she saw it. Neither of the women realizes that she is repeating herself.
Yet it is exactly here that the playwright has exposed himself, for it’s obvious that he is more interested in neatly tying up his design than in delving into the truth of his characters. At 65 minutes, his “approach” to his characters is even more superficial than how he shows theirs to be to one another. As a failure of the imagination, The Approach seemingly exposes a failure of a male playwright to visualize women discussing their careers and our world, a failure that might be said to typify all men – as easily as the shallowness and deceit he depicts in Anna, Cora, and Denise can be said to typify all women.
At a murky and rundown coffee shop, around a drab table where two pairs of colorless cups and saucers are never touched, designed and dimly lit by Sinéad McKenna, the nebulous unreality of the women is accented by their surroundings. The width of the table is enough to establish an unbridged distance between the women as they converse. Although the action spans years, I can’t be sure that O’Rowe required designer Ciara Fleming to provide the cast with any changes in attire – or hairstyle – as the actors sojourned backstage and fictional time was elapsing. These are staple embellishments in American comedies that follow similar cyclical formats.
With a steady undercurrent of dolor that O’Rowe constantly spreads so close to its surface, The Approach never threatens to become a laugh-fest. Nor does the distance between the women at this café prompt O’Rowe to demand that his players speak loudly enough to counteract the inevitable din of a public place. So like previous Irish imports staged at Dock Street Theatre, we struggle to hear and understand these women.
As Denise, Derbhle Crotty emerges as the most consistently audible and scrutable of the cast, which makes sense since this sib professes to be the blithe spirit in this bunch. She liked Oliver before he ditched Anna, but the estrangement persisted past his funeral when his ex pointedly refused to attend. Now that she’s blissfully remarried – to that thoughtful soul who customized a crossword puzzle to their relationship – and carrying this paragon’s second child, she doubts that she ever truly loved the man she stole away from her sister. Naturally, that makes the rift between the two exes more painful and gives Crotty a wider spectrum of feelings to explore.
Adding irony to the rift, along with some scathing satire, Aisling O’Sullivan as Anna has already revealed that she has similar doubts about her love for Oliver. So O’Sullivan’s portraiture is the darkest and most resentful by far, dimly lit up by her superficial friendliness towards Cora and her belated willingness to reconcile with Denise and assuage her sister’s pain and guilt. It’s a pianissimo portrait that also enables us to imagine why Oliver drifted away from this darkness to Denise’s comparative sunniness. He could be unloved by the cheerier sister.
Sketched as the most superficial of the three women, Catherine Walker as Cora could easily have chosen to be the most boisterous. Instead, Walker recedes into the nebulosity of her surroundings at least as completely as the siblings do. Cora has never really sustained a relationship with a man, it would seem; nor is there any enduring closeness with either of the sisters, for all their shared memories. With the blandly wholesome path Walker has chosen, we can assume that the reason Cora’s relationships fail to cement isn’t that she’s clinging or annoying. No, it’s because Cora is so indistinct, so uncaring, and so forgettable that her relations are so tenuous.
She could have been a liaison between the sisters instead of merely another acquaintance they had in common, and she could have become instrumental in their reconciliation. As their sounding board, Cora is our gateway into the hearts of Anna and Denise – our connection with the sisters – meeting infrequently enough with them to keep us informed as they catch up. No other need for her can be discerned.
A couple of days after I witnessed THE APPROACH at Dock Street Theatre, I overheard a couple of women at another Spoleto event describing the struggles they had experienced in hearing and understanding the play. “But at least you put it all together eventually,” their sympathetic listener consoled. If O’Rowe in directing, and his cast in acting, had served O’Rowe the playwright more diligently and energetically, most of those struggles would have been avoided. And the experience would be far more pleasurable – and what the script deserves.