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Holding up the ever-available mirror to a self-involved society

These are, sadly, increasingly self-involved times. How often do you see a person on the street with a head buried in a Blackberry or meandering the sidewalks oblivious and lost in a cell phone conversation? Technology has given us the power to connect with people 24/7, and yet instead of reaching out, technology allows people to isolate themselves in their own separate, self-centered worlds. It is both ironic and alarming.

It was also only a matter of time until this galloping solipsism began to be reflected in the work of contemporary playwrights. In a world littered with blogs and awash in self-reverential chatter, it was inevitable that we’d see shows in which the aggrandizement of the self was presumed to be sufficient material on which to balance a show.

It is not. Instead, we are confronted with works of such staggering shallowness that they are as irrelevant and annoying as a cellphone call one can’t help but overhear.

“Fran’s Bed” is an uncommonly boring play by the usually adept James Lapine. Fran has fallen into a coma. A plastic mannequin representing the comatose Fran lies in bed while her spirit floats around. Fran’s utter self-absorption has allowed her to be unfaithful to her husband, wretched to her children, and to generally make life miserable for those around her.

What follows, as the family gathers, is a dysfunctional “Blithe Spirit,” as the characters work on their “issues.” Nothing really ever gets resolved. Somehow the obvious solution—put a pillow over Fran’s face and have done with it—doesn’t occur to anybody. Pity.

Of course, none of these characters is likeable. One daughter is a “career gal,” the other is a divorced single mother struggling to make ends meet. Dad is henpecked, depressed, and has taken a mistress. They are all stereotypes, and the play is 90 minutes of unresolved unpleasantness. Oh, and speaking of stereotypes, we get a racist one too in Dolly, the black caregiver from “the islands,” who is constantly shoving biblical idiocy at the family.

Mia Farrow whines her way through the part of Fran, exerting no more effort than is absolutely necessary to move around the stage and repeat her lines. Julia Stiles plays the go-getter daughter, but can’t flesh out her character’s single dimension. Heather Burns has a few good moments as the other daughter, Vicky, but mostly delivers the part in a depressive monotone. Harris Yulin struggles valiantly with the part of Hank, but ultimately can’t enliven it. Come to think of it, the dummy makes out the best. Being inanimate, it is immune to the nonsense around it.

Even more insufferable is the wretched “A Woman of Will,” an obvious vanity project by singer/songwriter Amanda McBroom. It is a one-woman train wreck that tells the story of Kate, a blocked writer in a Holiday Inn in Cleveland, trying to pen lyrics for a musical of “The Merchant of Venice” that will star Jennifer Lopez. Kate invokes her childhood love of Shakespeare to inspire her, but all that comes out is insipid doggerel, just what you might expect from the woman who wrote “The Rose,” the title song for the Bette Midler film that aimed to evoke Janis Joplin’s tragic life.

When Shakespeare finally arrives as a disembodied voice, you would think that instead of encouraging Kate to find her voice, he would tell McBroom to stop sullying the stage he loved so much. Ah, yes, but he didn’t write this one.

Kate is one of the most tiresome characters to appear on a stage in a while—well, at least since Mia Farrow’s Fran discussed above. Kate’s incessant complaining centers on her husband who loves her, though she’s not sure if she loves him—and her lover who wants her, though she doesn’t know if she wants him. All of this is punctuated by the incessant ringing of the phone, though of course it’s unclear how, if she ran off to Cleveland, so many people know where to find her so soon after her arrived. Better not to ask.

This would all be merely intolerable were it not for the abominable sugar coated songs that bottom out with Lady Macbeth writing to Anne Landers, and a revolting ditty called “The Bitch is Out.”

As an actress, McBroom is plastic and false, scrupulously avoiding any believable action or emotion throughout the evening. At one point, when Kate thinks she just may take a drink out of despair over her writing, she grabs a glass full of pencils and flings them across the room. Either she likes a trace of graphite in her gin or fails to notice the fully stocked bar behind her with eight fresh glasses. This is the kind of shallow dramatics that characterize this disaster.

As a singer, McBroom has a strong lower register and a nice soprano, but she jerks between them uncontrollably. The effect is powerful—it exactly reminds you of a teenager learning to drive a stick.

In idle moments when the mind drifts—which is quite often in plays like these—it is passes the time to wonder what Shakespeare indeed might have said to these playwrights. I’m hoping he would remind them that the role of theater is “to hold as t’were the mirror up to nature,” not to gaze adoringly at one’s self.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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