I can’t speak for any other critics, but for me the most difficult plays to review are those that rest in that nebulous in-between place, those that are formidably mediocre and thereby fail to inspire either serious praise or derision. If a play is exceptionally bad, it is easy to enumerate its faults, to eviscerate it with an in-depth discussion of its shortcomings. In the same vein, if a play is incredibly good, it is a fleetpenned pleasure to showcase its achievements and to laud author, cast and crew.
In the vast majority of cases, I can tell you within five minutes of leaving the theatre whether I consider a play good, bad or mediocre. Once in a great while, however, I am confronted with a play that fails to play by the rules and manages to elicit in me a sort of theatre critic multiple personality disorder. Lisa Kron’s latest, Well, is just such a play, and I feel firmly that it will divide audiences just as it has divided my mind.
On the one hand, Well is a well-crafted play that pushes the boundaries of classic theater. It is openly and proudly “meta,” as it begins with a fourth wallbreaking introduction delivered, of course, directly to the audience. Its first words are a promise of selfawareness that the remainder of the play fulfills in spades. Not only is playwright Lisa Kron (played by Kate Levy) the main character, she also brings along her mother, Ann (Kathleen M. Brady). Ann’s character appears, at first, to exist solely for comic relief as she offers the audience 7UP and root beer or as she corrects Lisa on misremembered elements of the many flashbacks describing events from Lisa’s youth.
Lisa and Ann are joined by four utility players, denoted only as Actors A, B, C and D. These actors play roles ranging from the little girl who bullied Lisa as a child to the doctor and patients at the hospital allergy unit Lisa spent time in as a college student. In addition to acting out whatever parts Kron requires as she relates her life story, these actors (Rachel Fowler, Robert Jason Jackson, Shauna Miles and Erik Sandvold) periodically revert to their real-world selves and interact with Lisa and her mother as actors rather than characters.
Well is a nimble, witty, clever and quite cerebral play, and Kron’s ability to balance the “real” world of the play with the meta elements is commendable. Countless times during the play — often within the confines of individual scenes — she successfully manages transitions from comedy to pathos and from actors as characters to actors as actors and yet never loses or confuses the audience. For many, this achievement will be reason enough to love this show.
On the other hand, Well is essentially a oneperson show, albeit with other people on stage, and it succumbs to the most dangerous and most common pitfall of the one-person show: it is tremendously self-indulgent. Listening to Lisa repeatedly remind the audience that her mother isn’t a “theater person” made me chuckle every time, as Lisa, a white, upper-middleclass, liberal, intellectual lesbian, represents more than enough “theater person” stereotypes to cover herself, her mother and a busload of other people.
Beyond its extreme narcissism, Well nettled me with its utter failure to adhere to its own rules. As the play opens, Lisa assures her mother and the audience that Well is not merely an hour-and-ahalf-long venting session about Lisa’s mommy issues.
She promises us that, instead, Well will explore the concepts of wellness versus illness on not just an interpersonal but also a community level. Having taken Lisa at her word, I was more than a little disappointed when, at the end of the play, it became abundantly clear that, whatever its other aspirations might be, Well is just another one-person whine-fest about Lisa’s relationship with her mother.
Some will find it amazing, while others will wish they’d stayed at home. Either way Well will never be considered a middling trifle.
On the Bill:
Well plays at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts through Dec. 19.
Tickets start at $34. For tickets or information, call 303-833-4100 or visit www.denvercenter.org