No one hits all the emotional touchpoints quite like Aurora Greenway, feisty midlife heroine of Larry McMurtry’s 1975 novel, James L Brooks’s Oscar-winning 1983 movie and now Dan Gordon’s stage adaptation—which debuted in London in 2007 starring Dallas’s Linda Grey. Aurora is an irresistible conundrum: by turns haughty, caustic, tender and raw. The role, firmly embedded in popular memory by Shirley MacLaine’s film turn, is an actor’s dream…except that yet another iteration, even a live one, raises the question: Why try to improve on perfection?
Molly Ringwald does not succeed in doing so. Limited in affect (even in that iconic, wait-for-it hospital scene, which she tries to put over with sheer volume), she is also not well served by Gordon’s Cliff’s Notes script, which has reduced the screenplay to brief, talky, faux-cinematic scenes. Such choppiness is underscored by David Arsenault’s unimaginative scenic design, which tries to shoehorn multiple settings—Aurora’s presumably elegant living room, daughter Emma’s middle-class abode, and an all-purpose bedroom in between—onto 59E59’s tiny stage. Even this tripartite arrangement calls for much shifting of furniture and props. Oddly (and annoyingly) in the performance I saw, Aurora’s prize Renoir—whose origin story remains a mystery—hung crookedly. And when, as a gesture of rare generosity, Aurora moves it to Emma’s hospital room, she hangs it behind the bed, where it’s unlikely to provide “color, and light, and beauty to lift your spirits.”
The audience could use a bit more of all three. As Emma, Hannah Dunne is convincingly drab. Denver Milord, playing Flap, Emma’s aspiring-academic husband, seems to make little effort beyond donning the requisite glasses (though to be fair, the script scants his role). Jessica DiGiovanni injects her trio of small parts with a welcome energy, and John C. Vennema competently embodies every empathy-deficient doctor you’ve ever had the misfortune to encounter. As Garrett Breedlove, Aurora’s playboy paramour, Jeb Brown rises to the high bar set by Jack Nicholson. He conveys all due swagger and dash, even if the senescent lothario is not such a humorous trope these days.
59E59 (Off Broadway). By Dan Gordon. Directed by Michael Parva. With Molly Ringward, Hannah Dunne. Running time: 2hrs. One intermission. Through Dec 11. Click here for full ticket and venue information.
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