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Even in 1960, when Beyond the Fringe first convulsed audiences at the Edinburgh Festival, twentysomething Alan Bennett was a master of the revealing miniature. In brief skits like “Portrait From Memory,” “The Sadder and Wiser Beaver,” and “The End of the World,” he and his cohorts lampooned a range of targets—from plummy academics to callow journalists to goggle-eyed religious fanatics—with unerring accuracy and razor wit. Their style of satire was always gentle, even affectionate, but their humor was piercingly ironic and intelligent, leavened with a healthy underlying cynicism that gave their observations bite. The edgiest part of their show was “Aftermyth of War,” which mocked a whole genre of documentary film—the high-minded post-WWII paean to fighting heroes. We wax so nostalgic about the glories of war, this bit dared to suggest, because armed conflict provides so many opportunities for picturesque nobility and self-sacrifice.
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Since his Fringe days, Bennett has become one of Britain’s best-loved writers—vaguely eccentric in person, as the role requires, and enduringly perceptive about small, pathetic—and universal—household dramas. Even his much-lauded period piece, The Madness of George III, as Richard Corliss noted in a 1994 Time profile, is essentially a small domestic tragedy in which the head of a markedly dysfunctional family goes to pieces while the others worry over what to do. Now in his 60s, Bennett seems, if anything, to have nurtured the cheerful cynicism that marked the best Fringe material; in Talking Heads, a series of six solo playlets written a few years ago for the BBC, he’s more overtly disillusioned about life than in some of his work. But he’s no less ready to laugh about it.
Each Talking Heads narrative finds a single, working-class Englishwoman at home—and in a confessional mood. The two best sections, at least among the four parts Studio Theatre has picked to stage, are “A Cream Cracker Under the Settee,” in which a contrary septuagenarian widow, Doris (June Hansen), rails stubbornly against the indignities enforced on her by increasing infirmity, and “Bed Among the Lentils,” wherein the unhappy wife of an ambitious suburban vicar finds solace in the sherry bottle and in a dalliance with a younger South Asian merchant. Hansen’s work is impressive, balanced, and subtle, but Jon Tindle’s performance as Susan in “Lentils,” which closes the first half, makes everything that comes after seem like an anticlimax.
It helps that Bennett’s characterization of Susan is more rounded than those of the other three women; she’s the long-suffering spouse, perhaps, of the sanctimonious git in Bennett’s Fringe skit “Take a Pew,” embittered because she’s at once more intelligent and less self-confident than her husband. But it’s Tindle, not the writer, who mines the part for all its nuances, deftly drawing the humor out of Susan’s inability to master jam-making, sponge cake–baking, and garden party–throwing—“all armaments in the arsenal of a serious Anglican lady”—and somehow managing to convey vulnerability and weary resilience all at once. Embarrassment, Bennett has said, is a continuing theme in his work, and others ascribe to him a fascination with failure; certainly both are overriding concerns in Susan’s comically dispiriting story, and they play a certain part in Doris’ as well.
The other two women who spin in on James Kronzer’s turntable set (a suitably anonymous black-metal puzzle that does duty as bedroom, vicarage, jail cell, and parlor) are Nancy Paris’ lonely spinster, whose compulsive epistolary meddling ironically winds up doing her a world of good in “A Lady of Letters,” and Vanessa Maroney’s dim-bulb screen siren, a slightly seedy no-talent with a heart of gold who somehow fails to notice the contempt of the men producing the film she thinks is “Her Big Chance.” Paris and Maroney have less to work with than Hansen and Tindle, and their performances show the effort of trying to make what are essentially one-note jokes fill half-hour plays. Both actors are engaging enough, but their segments fall unfortunately flat compared to the others.
As these four women natter on, the audience learns more about them than they seem to know about themselves. Bennett’s trick is to hide the clues to their real stories between the lines of the tales they tell, where the audience can spot them while the monologuists are otherwise engaged. This, he seems to be saying, is how ridiculous we all look, trying as we constantly do to present ourselves in the most favorable light—making endless excuses and explanations for our vanity’s sake, when all we really need to do is give up and admit that we’re human.
It’s a fiercely critical—and painfully accurate—assessment, made palatable only by the humor and intense compassion with which Bennett delivers it.CP