Wedded love, unless it is the kind masquerading as fury, is not very often — or very well — portrayed onstage. Where is the drama in the unimpeded marriage of true minds?
On the other hand, a slim book like “About Alice” can be devastating. In that 2011 memoir, an expansion of an earlier New Yorker article, the journalist Calvin Trillin conjures a great love story in the guise of a eulogy for his wife of 35 years, who died in 2001 after decades spent dealing with lung cancer and its sequels. The liveliness and restraint of the prose, along with Mr. Trillin’s characteristic wryness, suggest deep if narrow rivers of feeling; the reader may cross and cry without fear of drowning.
It must therefore have seemed like a fine idea to have Mr. Trillin adapt the material again, this time for the stage. But the emotional terrain has shifted with the genre, so much that the restraint now feels like withholding. As a result, the dramatization of “About Alice” that opened on Sunday evening at Theater for a New Audience in Brooklyn is sweet and mild and less emotional than the book, when what you want is for it to be more so.
There was probably no way to avoid that, once it was decided to put both Calvin (Jeffrey Bean) and Alice (Carrie Paff) onstage. Not that the actors in any way fall short of inhabiting their characters. Mr. Bean, hilarious in “The Thanksgiving Play” just a few months ago, uncannily reproduces Mr. Trillin’s familiar speaking voice and manner, with the sly quality of a man who knows he has a good line in reserve. And Ms. Paff keeps Alice’s warmth and critical intelligence — she is the problem-solver of the family — in lovely equilibrium, even as illness would seem to threaten both.
But creating these simulacra of the book’s characters, however accurately, is not the same as dramatizing them. Sometimes it is the opposite. Having a narrator describe his wife in prose is a remarkably different experience from having him introduce her in a play and then letting her speak his description herself. What seemed doting in his voice may seem sharp or critical or canned in hers, and his recitation of her endless admirable qualities may seem more like flattery than mourning when the woman is standing quite vividly right there.
The production, directed by Leonard Foglia, tries to address the relentless writerliness of the material by opening it up a bit. The Alice onstage is given, in addition to Calvin’s words, some of her own, drawn from two of her published works about illness: “Dear Bruno,” a letter to a 12-year-old boy hospitalized with a malignant tumor, and “Of Dragons and Garden Peas,” an influential essay about the patient’s experience of cancer treatment. But merely reciting passages from these works doesn’t help much; a play is not an audiobook.
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What we long for are moments in which the couple’s personalities collide: hers earnest and practical, his airy and arch. When we get them, the light of drama finally flickers on, as in a scene depicting a party in 1963 at which the two, meeting for the second time, flirt. But though that interaction is fleshed out with conversation only alluded to in the book, the dialogue — mostly about chiggers — does not really support Alice’s bemused contention that her future husband was never again so funny as he was that night. He just seems like Calvin Trillin at a run-of-the-mill Barnes & Noble reading.
That distinction between literary dialogue and stage dialogue keeps stalling the action; the only scenes to benefit from theatricalization are thus those whose conflict is subtextual. In the most wrenching of them, when Alice’s health is failing, Calvin must promise that, even if she dies, their younger daughter’s imminent wedding will proceed as planned. Yet death is never mentioned. The emotion is in the silence: hers to convince him and his to acquiesce.
I could wish there were more such scenes, but the material would have to be significantly rethought to produce them. And I’m not sure that a eulogy wants expanding anyway. Watching Mr. Foglia’s fine and sensitive production, you are intensely aware that something very private has become very public, with beautiful wigs (by Tom Watson) and costumes (by David C. Woolard) and projections (by Elaine J. McCarthy) and stage management and ushers and an audience to admire it all. The icy solitude of grief is gone, replaced by the warmth of nostalgia, which if it was a fair trade for Mr. Trillin isn’t so much for us.
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