Ruskin's Runaway Countess

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:22

    The story it tells is one that most people have probably heard at one time in some form or another, whether they know it or not. It's probably most readily available in Parallel Lives, Phyllis Rose's 1983 study of five idiosyncratic Victorian marriages. Briefly, Gray left Ruskin?more or less for the Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais, whom Ruskin had championed and tried to make his protege?after six years of marriage, thereby causing unprecedented embarrassment to all concerned. Not for the reasons one would think, however (her growing friendship with Millais, which Ruskin appears to have fostered and encouraged), but rather owing to the circumstances of the existing marriage as they were ultimately disclosed in court. The play is constructed (rather artfully) around a second-act disclosure and probably best appreciated if we spend the first act not quite sure what sort of marriage we're looking at.

    We tend to forget?because the New York stage gives us little reason to remember it?how much the mechanism of theater depends on changing notions of what is shocking and what is real. On the far side of shock lies incredulity. Is it believable that a woman would murder her own children? That a man with no real reason to suspect his wife would strangle her in a jealous rage? The answer is no. It's always no. The job of theater is to make the unbelievable believable, the unacceptable accepted. It does this?when it can, when it remembers?with compelling or "realistic" acting. But it's precisely because notions of what seems shocking and what seems "real" keep shifting, as the "truth of the moment" changes, that fashions in acting continue to oscillate and evolve, since the moment that art finds a new way to express something "realistically," that style or technique becomes immediately "artificial." The visual arts have that in common with acting: there's an interactive process forever going on.

    In a sense, the most startling aspect of Ms. Villar-Hauser's production is not the central unbelievable fact at the core of Murphy's play and the Ruskin marriage, but the quietness of the direction and performances. And that's interesting, since in an indirect, offhand way, the process by which what is "natural" becomes unnatural or "unrealistic" is one of the things that Murphy's play is about. "A woman sewing with foxgloves in her hair," his Effie Gray mocks as his Millais poses her for a sketch, and we are reminded how stagy and artificial most of what the Pre-Raphaelite painters produced now seems. It comes as a shock that something as studied and as manifestly at odds with its own time could ever have seemed authentic or legitimate, artistically.

    A woman sewing with foxgloves in her hair?is that natural or unnatural? Realistic or not? And assuming our answer depends on one of the two foregoing, could it be "beautiful"? Among the issues that flit by us while we watch the breakup of the Ruskins' marriage are questions about what is substance and what is shadow and which of the two is to be valued more; whether the job of art is to capture nature?to get down on paper in some form the way it impresses itself on the mind?or to interpret it and transform our perception of it. If art, as Millais at one point asserts (quoting Ruskin), is "beauty and blemish" both, does it then follow that "to idealize is to destroy"? If so, what hope is there for the artist who after all cannot capture nature without somehow leaving his mark or the imprint of his vision?

    What are crimes against nature? Are they something that happens in a marriage or a painting? The Countess is not really about art any more than Yazmina Reza's play Art was about art. It's about relationships and behavior. Specifically, it's about how little a man who is sexually involved with a woman has to do in order to convey the impression that she is paranoid or delusional.

    According to Mr. Ruskin, Mrs. Ruskin suffers from "fits of anger and deep depression" and "a kind of severe nervous disorder." The first time I saw The Countess, I was reminded of Clifford Odets' backstage melodrama The Country Girl, a play in which a plausible husband drops similar hints about his wife. Such plots are endlessly fascinating, particularly in a theater, because they give us a chance to witness firsthand the insidious power of male innuendo. The Country Girl, which formed the basis of a pretty good movie (with Grace Kelly, William Holden and Bing Crosby), had no reason, really, to be a play. The fact that it was written as one has more to do with the fashion of the time and the fact that Odets was that peculiarly American creature, a Professional Playwright. (What other culture has ever isolated the dramatist from other forms of literary or theatrical activity in quite the same way?)

    The Countess is similarly a play that probably wants to be a movie, if only because the questions it raises about art cannot be properly dealt with on the stage. There are visual statements that film can make in a matter of seconds?ironies and juxtapositions?that would take pages of dialogue to explore. That said, one has to honor Murphy for the quality of his writing in The Countess, not only for the wit and intelligence of the dialogue, but also the practical use he makes of the theatrical form. To whatever extent he can, Murphy allows the action in the play to descant on the intellectual content. You cannot watch a play in which two actors simulate, say, a drawing lesson or the act of sketching someone, without thinking about the whole concept of mimesis and how it works. And there's some nice theme-work, too, in the verbiage?words (like "ghost" and "shadow") that once carried another meaning, bore some relation to each other, or to theater, that a contemporary audience could perhaps be expected to remember, however dimly.

    Not that either play or production is flawless. There are some lapses in judgment and execution: a lot of silly interstitial music and sound effects, a hopeless (albeit necessary) framing device and, early on, one of those dreadful comic book lines: Well, here it is 1853, and who would have thought the industrial revolution would so have changed things! (I'm exaggerating?though not by much.) But these are comparatively minor sins. What impresses itself most on the mind and memory are the two central performances.

    Ms. Woodward is one of those performers you literally can't take your eyes off because there's so much going on below the surface. And it's all in the head, not the face or even the voice?intellectual rather than emotional passion. As Effie Gray, she spends a good deal of the play in a state of near emotional check, listening, sifting, registering, absorbing, interpreting?not that she doesn't have a lot to say, but it's largely Effie's moral development that we're concerned with, things that seem to take place when other people are talking.

    It was chiefly the subtlety of Ms. Woodward's performance that prompted my second visit to The Countess. (I was afraid it would have deteriorated. It hasn't. Also, I wanted to see if she still struck me as a sort of female Kevin Spacey. She does; she has that same quiet dignity masking an intelligence that seems every moment ready to boil over. And like Spacey she isn't afraid of stillness or silence.)

    That first viewing left me so blown away by her that I don't think I fully appreciated the artistry in Mr. Riordan's performance as the famous art critic, evincing in the play's opening moments a kind of scholarly preening that is neither ridiculous nor unattractive, a lecture-hall combination of magnanimity and authority that keeps us wondering, long afterward, precisely what we're seeing, even if we already know the story. There's a good deal of grace and nuance in his portrait of Ruskin as a man who is moved almost to the point of tears by art, for whom Beauty and the idea of it are two separate things. And there's a chilling accuracy in the way he manages to capture the difference between the way certain men behave with their wives, and the way they talk about them with other men. But more than petulance, what we hear in his voice when he speaks of "what she was once" and "what she might be" is romance for the past and the romance of ideal possibility, and we see a man who overvalues both.

    As the interloper Millais, Jy Murphy (no relation to the playwright, evidently) is pretty smashing, too. His job as an actor is largely to refrain from doing what Millais himself is doing in the story, upstaging the relationship between husband and wife; he has to see to it that this remains a play about the breakup of a marriage rather than about an incipient romance. This he manages with some professionalism and aplomb, even if he overdoes the ebullient youth thing a bit at the beginning.

    Only two things seemed to me to have altered slightly since summer. One was the quality of the pause in the post-disclosure scene: that speechless silence on the part of the senior Ruskins (Frederick Neumann and Honora Fergusson), just before Ruskin begins babbling, when characters who have been talking all evening fall mute seems to me terribly important. It's the payoff to that quiet, languid direction, all those scenes and scene changes that seem to take place in real time. This time around, it appeared that the cast had lost some of the courage they'd used to milk that scene the first time around. (There was too much movement, elder Ruskins looking around at each other and so forth.) The other slip, it seems to me, is a small amount of tooth-gnashing and eye-rolling that Mr. Riordan was going in for in the pre-disclosure scene the other night. A pity, I thought, as we should really leave the theater remarking?as Ruskin's contemporaries must no doubt have remarked?on how sane he seemed.

    Samuel Beckett Theater, 410 W. 42nd St. (betw. 9th & 10th Aves.), 307-4100.