The U.S. premiere of Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art at The Studio Theatre is hilarious, touching, and thought provoking. It displays Bennett’s unparalleled skill with the English language and flair for well-crafted dramatic structures and probes at the inner-workings of art, literature, the theater, and human interaction. This production, directed by Studio’s relatively new Artistic Director David Muse, is subtle and effective while not diminishing the play’s humor, and is perfectly supportive of the strong, complicated text without being overshadowed by it.
The action of the play centers on the rehearsal of a new play about a fictionalized meeting of British poet W.H. Auden and composer Benjamin Britten. As noted in the extensive and exceedingly useful dramaturg’s notes, Auden and Britten did work together on many projects over the course of their respective careers, but the events portrayed in the play-within-a- play never occurred. The genius of the play is how it uses the events of the rehearsal to temper the bleakness of Auden and Britten’s twilight reflection with humor, and how it illuminates how and why the human conditions compels us to make art.
The entire cast is fantastic and they bring Bennett’s complex, multi-layered characters to life, and handle the tonal and structural shifts effortlessly. The play-within-a-play device is an oft used (and misused) device of the theater, but Muse and the cast of actor-playing-actors handle the frequent shifts from play to rehearsal in a naturalistic manner that is familiar to anyone who has even been in a real-life rehearsal, and refreshing to anyone who has ever seen a mediocre production of Noises Off.
Ted van Griethuysen plays Fitz, the actor portraying Auden, and is a pleasure to watch. Fitz is an at times cranky actor who plays Auden so well that it is easy to forget that the audience is watching Griethuysen play Fitz playing Auden. The most powerful scenes in the play are those in which Auden is confronted by his estranged friend Britten (Paxton Whitehead playing the actor Henry). The relationship that Whitehead and Griethuysen create is rich and complex enough that the long history between Auden and Britten is palpable.
The biographer of both Auden and Britten, Humphrey Carpenter, is portrayed by Cameron Folmar (playing the actor Donald); Carpenter is a fascinating character in his own right, and Folmar makes the brave choice of making Donald a lesser actor than either Fitz or Henry. However, the scenes in which Donald becomes frustrated with the way the author portrays Carpenter prove that Folmar is a superior and versatile actor.
It is surprising, too, that the two stage manager characters, Kay (Margaret Daly) and her assistant George (Matt Dewberry) are stand-outs of both the play and the production. Dewberry gives a detailed, funny, and memorable performance as the harried ASM, a role that could have easily been over or underplayed. Margaret Daly makes Kay the perfect stage manager; she is mother, protector, friend, dictator, or oracle depending on what the situation requires. Her final monologue, which reveals Kay to perhaps be the main character of the entire play, provides an insightful, heartfelt look at the theater and its artists from the only perspective that can objectively see the process and progress of a piece of theater: the stage manager.
The Habit of Art is a complex interrogation of the many meanings of art, collaboration, and theater as performance and practice. In its American debut, it is characterized by stellar performances, spot-on direction, a swift pace and frequent laughs that make this show accessible to almost everyone.
Running time: Two hours and a half hours, plus a 10 minute intermission.
The Habit of Art plays through October 16th at The Studio Theatre- 1501 14th St. NW in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 332-3300, or purchase them online.