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Lynn Redgrave throws a tea party

Her one-woman show is more a reading than a revelation. But isn't she a lovely host?

October 17, 2006|Charles McNulty | Times Staff Writer

While the tea is steeping and the cucumber sandwiches are being prepared, gather round, cardigan-wearing buffs of theatrical royalty. Lynn Redgrave would like to regale you with a tale inspired by -- you guessed it! -- her famous family.

No, I'm afraid it's not about her big sis Vanessa or her father Michael, those two acting titans. Nor does it revolve around her lesser-known but equally powerful stage-veteran brother Corin. And if what you're after is juicy tidbits about her Richardson nieces, Natasha and Joely, you had better look elsewhere.

"Nightingale," the solo show that opened Sunday at the Mark Taper Forum, harks back to her maternal grandmother, a prim, crotchety old lady whose sensibility remained vigorously Victorian even after the Edwardian era had long passed her by. Think of it as a stroll down memory lane, disguised as a performance, though more properly understood as an exercise in creative nostalgia.

Oh, but wait, isn't the Taper supposed to be a bastion of serious playwriting, with big ideas and themes artfully crafted to keep a demanding, literate audience enthralled? Never mind. It would be impolite to make a fuss. Just pretend there's a fire roaring and plenty of sherry nearby.

Mind you, I like Redgrave as much as anyone. She's more humanly accessible than her loftier, passionately political sister. (Not for nothing did Georgy Girl grow up to become the face of Weight Watchers until Fergie stole her diet crown.) As a character actor, she has a delightful way of combining intoxicating eccentricity with tonic common sense. And in the right part -- for example, the shop clerk whose middle-aged feet turn on a chiropodist in Alan Bennett's "Talking Heads" -- she can ably deliver the comic-poignant goods.

But this loose string of anecdotes processed into quasi-fiction doesn't constitute a play. In fact, "Nightingale" doesn't inspire much in the way of dramatic criticism, either. The species of comment it provokes is more along the lines of "Doesn't she look well!" and "What a smart outfit she has on!" Who could be so crass as to write a review of a 90-minute tea party presided over by such a lovely host?

Halfway into the show, I couldn't help dreaming about "Three Tall Women," Edward Albee's indelible dramatic reckoning with an equally crabby, upper-crust geriatric, his soul-blistering, adoptive mother. "Nightingale" seems like an ideal warm-up exercise for this worthier theatrical challenge, a memoir truly transformed into autonomous art. One can only hope that Redgrave can talk her sister and one of her nieces into in an all-Redgrave revival.

But back to the current production, which is innocuous enough, though a bit cheeky when you think that people are being asked to plunk down upwards of 50 bucks to hear her impersonate a sex-scared relative bemoan the lack of "quality help." As for plot, well, there's a riding lesson on a horse from a farmer with dirty fingernails that rules out frigidity. And since this is a recap of a life, the inevitable profound losses -- shockingly untimely as they always are -- provide the dramatic contours.

Solo performance captivates us most when it risks raw self-exposure. Redgrave prefaces her piece by describing what led her to stand before us alone onstage. "Once upon a time ... not very long ago, I began my life as a single woman," she says, alluding to her soap-opera divorce that fed the tabloids with the kind of stuff they usually have to manufacture from scratch.

Feeling unmoored, she flew back to England and shared a room at the family house with her mother, actor Rachel Kempson. One sleepless night she wandered down to the parish cemetery where her ancestors are buried and noticed that the headstone of her grandparents, Eric and Beatrice (or "Beanie"), had been effaced by acid rain. Eric died when she was only 4, but Beanie is a character who looms large in her mind.

"She wasn't very good at being a granny," Redgrave acknowledges. "She was the sort of granny who said you couldn't have a sugar mouse from the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve." Yet she's haunted by the woman's loneliness and disappointment, and in particular the way she kissed her husband's coffin and apologized to him for what Redgrave presumes was an attitude toward carnal pleasure summed up in the old "close your eyes and think of England" joke.

"Who will know her name?" Redgrave somberly muses. "Like a nightingale, she will sit unnoticed on the bough of a tree, singing, unheard, in the dark." Her play elaborates and embellishes her remembered fragments of Beanie (renamed Mildred to stress the poetic license employed), with the rather unrealistic hope of bestowing on her the immortality that Keats offered an anonymous bird in "Ode to a Nightingale."

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