Review: Elective Affinities

Zoe Caldwell invites you to a rather disturbing tea party.

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  • Photograph: Julieta Cervantes

    Elective Affinities

    Elective Affinities at Hauptmann residence

  • Photograph: Julieta Cervantes

    Elective Affinities

    Elective Affinities at Hauptmann residence

  • Photograph: Brigitte Lacombe

    Elective Affinities

    Elective Affinities at Hauptmann residence

  • Photograph: Brigitte Lacombe

    Elective Affinities

    Elective Affinities at Hauptmann residence

Photograph: Julieta Cervantes

Elective Affinities

Elective Affinities at Hauptmann residence

Time Out Ratings

<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5

At a tea party masking as a site-specific play (or is it the other way around?), the exquisitely genteel Mrs. Alice Hauptmann shared a remark her husband made about an art acquisition—a bent and hulking black sculpture sprawled across the living-room floor. "Either it's growing, or I'm shrinking," noted Alice's spouse. I feel similarly about David Adjmi's Elective Affinities, a brief but lingering monologue that Soho Rep is staging in a grand Upper East Side townhouse (home to the American Irish Historical Society). Adjmi's ten-page playlet is tiny, but its eloquent, perverse core of coolly rationalized cruelty continues to gain mass and weight in my head. Elective Affinities is like the curtain-raiser for some horrific tragedy that hasn't begun.

We never learn the impetus for Alice's teatime chat with 30 people at her home—ranging over topics such as civilization versus nature, the justification for torturing political prisoners and the moral calculus of loving some humans while hating others. The grandmotherly but tart Zoe Caldwell greets her guests with a sadistic glint in her eye; she makes sure we're all comfortably seated around her on various sofas, poufs and divans before launching into a breezy, elliptical colloquy on the logic of violence to maintain civilized comfort. In other words, tea and zero sympathy. Adjmi (Stunning) owes an obvious debt to Wallace Shawn and Edward Albee, but my guess is that this surgically precise, blackly funny author will pay the money back before too long.

Given how much director Sarah Benson and her coproducers (Rising Phoenix Repertory and Piece by Piece Productions) have worked to conjure an atmosphere of weird realism in an actual house (the huge black sculpture, piano-playing servants, hot tea, finger sandwiches!), you might judge the fact that Caldwell reads from a script as a weakness. You'd be wrong. First, Caldwell is magisterial and terrifying, whether or not she memorized every word. And second, Alice being on book makes our excursion down the rabbit hole with her seem curiouser and eerily unfeigned.

Note: The event is pretty much sold out (only 30 audience members at a time), but the producers release a few tickets for every performance. Check the Hauptmann residence site for details.

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Hauptmann residence. By David Adjmi. Dir. Sarah Benson. With Zoe Caldwell. 45mins. No intermission. See complete event information

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