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Dear Elizabeth: Theater review by Sandy MacDonald
When Les Waters directed Sarah Ruhl’s “arrangement” (not adaptation) of decades of correspondence between poets Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop at Yale Rep three years ago, the production was fully staged: Many a metaphor and allusion came with its own whimsical literalization. In Kate Whoriskey’s pared-down script-on-desk version for the Women’s Project Theater (think Love Letters for the lit crowd), only a few vestiges of Ruhl’s flights of fancy remain, mostly as curious asides delivered by the narrator (serviceable Polly Noonan) seated discreetly upstage.
Stripped of virtually all stage business, beyond a sentimental two-step (directorial shorthand for nostalgic senior canoodling), this rendition is a dull, drab affair—and romantic it is not, despite what appears to be a team effort to insinuate a sublimated attraction between these two pillars of midcentury American poetry.
Bishop was openly, unapologetically gay. If Lowell made periodic overtures (on the page), they were likely the gestures of a die-hard gallant or the tic of a serial seducer—a far cry from the sleazy come-on enacted here (in the first embodiment of “a Rotating Cast of Luminaries,” as the program puts it) by Harris Yulin. “If you ever feel like writing me privately…” he breathes into the ear of Kathleen Chalfant, who looks suitably scandalized.
A further major misstep is having Bishop react with pouty dismay when Lowell announces his intent to marry the novelist/critic Elizabeth Hardwick. The emotional tone conveyed here is that of a romantic triangle, when in fact Bishop was most likely concerned for Lowell’s well-being, given that Hardwick, a mutual friend, already had a reputation as something of a martinet ("a Blanche DuBois with a steely will,” wrote Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in his ’07 Times obit).
Bishop, whose childhood consisted largely of a series of unhappy displacements, was known for her asperity: “Sobriety & gayety & patience & toughness will do the trick,” she advises Lowell during one of his frequent breakdowns. Chalfant opts to play Bishop as kindly and sunny—except, of course, when the poet is attempting to quell her own demons with whiskey and, in a pinch, rubbing alcohol. In what passes here for a pinnacle of dramatic tension, she drops the facade of civility to upbraid Lowell for appropriating Hardwick’s private letters as grist for his book-length poem “The Dolphin.”
Interpretive oddities aside, Whoriskey’s staging is a study in brown. Antje Ellermann’s set consists of a line of battered trunks, some propped open to reveal biographical clues (such as a David Levine cover drawing of Lowell for the New York Review of Books, which he and Hardwick helped cofound over supper). Mary Louise Geiger’s lighting is harsh to the point of punitive: Overhead spots shoot prisms of highlight through eyeglasses onto cheeks, and the writers’ desk lamps expose bare bulbs to the first few rows.
Otherwise, this epistolary abridgment is a bit of a slog, as the pair parry compliments, writing pointers and oft-thwarted plans to get together. Viewing these two influential writers side by side onstage proves much less vivid than encountering them on the page.
McGinn/Cazale Theatre (Off Broadway). By Sarah Ruhl. Directed by Kate Whoriskey. With rotating casts. Running time: 1hr 45mins. One intermission.