Returning to Reims
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Nina Hoss gives riveting voice to an intellectual critique of the left in this provocative political play.
Theater review by Adam Feldman
The exquisitely natural German actor Nina Hoss has a voice tinged with weltschmerz, an aura of knowing forbearance and eyes that seem to carry limitless baggage lightly. It would be compelling to hear her read the phone book, as they say, but she spends most of the quietly engrossing Returning to Reims delivering a far richer text: an insightful memoir by Didier Eribon, in which the gay philosopher recounts his rapprochement with his estranged working-class mother in a bleak industrial suburb of Reims, France, and argues that French workers’ turn from communism to right-wing nationalism is the result of their erasure from the rhetoric and policies of mainstream leftism. (“People first of all have a need not to feel like they are being treated as mute objects about which political decisions are made.”)
Hoss plays an movie star named Katy who is recording a voiceover for a documentary based on Eribon’s book. It’s okay if she flubs a line or two, says her slick young director, Paul (Bush Moukarzel), because “It’s not theater.” Most of Returning to Reims—which lasts two hours, with no intermission—doesn’t seem much like theater either; we are effectively watching Paul’s film as Hoss narrates it live. You can sometimes sense the audience growing restless at the absence of front-and-center drama. But director Thomas Ostermeier gradually adjusts the style toward an explicit awareness of theatricality: The sound engineer (Ali Gadema) delivers a rap song straight to the audience; by the end, the Katy conceit has been abandoned, and Hoss shares photos and videos of her actual late father, a prominent politician and ecological activist.
In parallel with Eribon’s memoir, the show thus finds a way to make its timely political argument intensely personal. Every moment of Hoss’s performance is subtly infused with backstory, and the metatheatrical framework is forgiving: If Hoss’s performance and character seem richer than those of her costars, that’s because the whole piece is actually, in a sense, a play about her. Even if the rap sequence strikes you as excruciating—as it did for me—the play implicitly invites you to reexamine that response and the class positioning behind it (what Eribon calls “the social joy that results from belonging to the privileged world of those who can appreciate refined forms of artistic expression”). Even as Returning to Reims asks of its audience a certain empathy and patience, it also suggests the importance of those qualities in addressing those whom the left has left behind.
St. Ann’s Warehouse (Off Broadway). Based on text by Didier Eribon. Directed by Thomas Ostermeier. With Nina Hoss. Running time: 2hrs. No intermission. Through Sun 25.