Really: Theater review by David Cote
Taking a photograph is a reflexive act any idiot with a phone and selfie stick can perform. But the art of framing a shot and exposing film to light—quaintly retro though it may seem—retains some dignity, even mystery. So when, at the start of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s coolly absorbing Really, we see Girlfriend (Kaneza Schaal), loading her camera before a shoot with Mother (Elaine Davis), there’s geeky frisson about gear, but also the sense that something arcane and strange is about to happen.
Since Richard Maxwell is directing, strangeness—or more accurately, estranging—is to be expected. Collaborating with designer Michael Schmelling—whose unfinished-wood set is both chicly inviting and forbiddingly sterile, Maxwell and Drury create a room-sized camera obscura, in which projected images are inverted through a quirk of optics. Fittingly for a play about analog film, Really is slow to develop, but eventually comes into focus as a meditation on the capturing and hoarding of time.
Sounds like a bold theme, but Drury arrives at it slowly and slyly. On the surface, this is a character-driven vignette about a photo shoot. Mother arrives and, as the taciturn Girlfriend poses her and focuses, the older woman fills awkward silences with elliptical chatter about herself. Over the course of 70 minutes we learn that Girlfriend was living with Calvin (Tavish Miller), the Mother’s son, also a photographer, now dead. Mother also lost her husband some time earlier and oozes loneliness from every pore. “There comes a time in every woman’s life when she must transform herself into a pharmacy,” she jokes, downing a handful of pills.
Such epigrammatic wit stands out in a script that carves pain out of the negative space of conversation. Still, transformation is the keynote. How photographers turn poses into paper, or how Calvin tries to force his Girlfriend into an apolitical-artist mold she refuses to fit. Both the Girlfriend and Mother drift between scenes in the present and ones in the past, as their fraught relationship with the cold, narcissistic Calvin comes into sharper relief.
Maxwell's rigor, Drury's beautifully refined language and well-judged performances mesh impressively: What could have been a simple relationship drama with flashbacks emerges as an unnerving study of art as pollution, distraction from a world fast evolving beyond aesthetics. In its final scenes, Really veers into bleak, politically spiky territory. A drama about shared grief between a grieving mother and her son’s surviving lover gives way to an argument that the Western canon is so much garbage to be forgotten by the future. In that way, each time the camera shutter snap-clatters, it might as well be the report of gun. Click! You’re dead.—David Cote
Abrons Arts Center/Henry Street Settlement (Off-Off Broadway). By Jackie Sibblies Drury. Directed by Richard Maxwell. With Kaneza Schaal, Elaine Davis, Tavish Miller. Running time: 1hr 10mins. No intermission.