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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
The Gift

"Where would we be if we quelled every strange thought? "— Martin
The Gift James Van Der Beek, Chris Mulkey (Photo: Michael Lamont)

Joanna Murray-Smith's latest American premiere at the Geffen is The Gift that keeps on giving laughs and provocations. But it often asks the audience to suspend disbelief and bridge gaps. Some pieces seem to be missing. Ultimately, too much assembly is required.

The set-up is simple. At a tropical resort, two couples meet while celebrating their anniversaries. The middle-aged Sadie (Kathy Baker) and Ed (Chris Mulkey) are well-off due to his good, old-fashioned hard work. But the bond between the childless duo has been flatlined Sadie, serving as our narrator and touchstone, describes how they've gone from "Hello, you" to Oh, it's you." The ever-reliable Baker transmits Sadie's yearning without wallowing in it. Everything stays as light and breezy as the sun-drenched setting.

Excitement comes in the form of the thirty-ish Martin (James Van Der Beek), an artist, and Chloe (Jaime Ray Newman), a journalist who writes about art. They're struggling — financially from the vagaries of the art world and domestically due to the pressures of new parenthood. They still get a charge from each other though. Sadie and Ed find themselves drawn to the younger couple and pick up some heat of their own from the second-hand sparks.

As the couples hit it off, we're faced with making the first and largest leap of faith. Martin and Chloe have left behind their child to revel in much-missed alone time. Murray-Smith offers no compelling reason why they'd spare more than a few words for the older duo. Sadie does have a wry sense of humor: "We're not interesting. No one showed us how." But she's right. They represent a conventionality that Martin and Chloe define themselves against.

Martin and Ed do share an admiration for improvisational jazz, which the former likens to art. But Ed's "never been a big idea person" and that's all Martin is. He explains that audiences have to suspend doubt, which plays as Murray-Smith's advice to us. So we try. But there's a bigger issue.

We have doubts about Martin and Chloe's motives. He's a conceptual artist who farms out the execution work to other people. His hands-off approach creates a distance between us and the character. Waiting for a plot to kick in, many may reasonably wonder whether the younger pair are going to take advantage of their elders. But these questions are subsumed by a new narrative focus when the quartet goes boating.

This sequence supplies the production's one instance of dazzling theatricality. The finesse and beauty of its staging supports the world-class reputations of director Maria Aitken (the global hit The 39 Steps), Tony Award-winning scenic and lighting designers Derek McLane and Peter Kaczorowski, and the brilliant Media Designer Howard Werner (Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark).

The scene also provides the play's late-in-coming turning point. While boating, Martin demonstrates that he can take heroic action when necessary. As a result, Ed and Sadie ask the younger pair to request any gift of their choice. In its Australian premiere, an intermission was taken at this point. It plays here without a break, but the flow seems choppy. The stage action leaps a year to when the foursome reunite for the big reveal of the wish.

Martin and Chloe's request shatters one of the culture's remaining taboos, tests the relationship between the couples, and transforms our sense of each character's morality. In theory, that should all be terrifically exciting. Unfortunately, it seems theoretical, which dampens its impact. Martin and Chloe would have to be sketched in more fully for their choice to land as something more than a conceit, fashioned not just by a conceptual artist but the playwright. Martin believes that people can be most tellingly divided between "those who grab life in all its mysteries and those who do not." One could say the same about plays. Her Gift doesn't quite make that cut.

As with her previous Geffen outing Female of the Species, Murray-Smith presents an artistic figure from the outside and seems to set them up for judgement. Annette Bening's full-bodied performance in the earlier play helped to bring her feminist writer role to life. Van Der Beek and Newman are attractive but, under Aitken's direction, do little to draw us in. The fearlessness and surprise Martin advocates for is discussed in the play but not embodied by it. How could it be when a sweet soul like Sadie is our guide and not the truly intrepid characters?

The play's ancestors went farther. John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation is also narrated primarily by a middle-aged, well-to-do woman who feels that her marriage has cooled. But she used her time with us to be brutally honest, especially with herself, and she took action. As with so much of The Gift, Sadie takes only baby steps in similar directions. Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage is also a somewhat schematic four-hander but with a solid pretext and an escalating cascade of incidents and revelations. The Gift has approximately two.

The Geffen has admirably established an ongoing relationship with a prolific writer of many talents. It's packaged her latest work with a grade-A director and cast and wrapped it with sleek design. But they might have done Murray-Smith a greater favor if they'd looked this particular Gift horse in the mouth. Having it returned to sender may have prodded her to grab her intriguing premise in all its mystery.

The Gift by Joanna Murray-Smith
Directed by Maria Aitken

Cast: Kathy Baker, Chris Mulkey, Jaime Ray Newman, James Van Der Beek
Scenic Designer: Derek McLane
Lighting Designer: Peter Kaczorowski
Costume Designer: Laura Bauer
Original Music and Sound Design: John Gromada
Media Designer: Howard Werner
Production Stage Manager: Mary Michele Miner
Runs Tuesday to Sunday through March 10
Location: Geffen Theatre 10886 Le Conte Avenue Los Angeles, California 90024 (310) 208-5454
Reviewed by: Jon Magaril
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