Steppenwolf Theatre

“Another job that you hope at last / Will make your future forget your past,” goes a line in Cole Porter’s “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” The lyric applies specifically to performers trying to cover up a past failure with a new hit, but it also applies more generally; for most people, artists and audiences alike, show business is an avenue of escape. People’s tastes and levels of education vary, of course. Some people turn to musical comedy, others to TV soap operas; others turn to “high art”–literature or painting or classical music–often with the stated aim of learning new things about themselves and the world. But the need for art is rooted in the need for escape–and it’s frequently nurtured in children whose troubled environments while growing up teach them early on to retreat into a happier world of the imagination.

Art is the expression of an individual personality; very often the most powerful aspects of an artist’s work arise from his or her private pain. Many artists don’t share this pain overtly with the world. Some of them disguise it in carefully coded characters (as Tennessee Williams did in his plays, for example); others, especially interpretive artists like actors and instrumentalists, simply pour all their feeling into their performing. Either way, it often makes for a peculiar relationship with their audiences: the things the fans like the most are the very things that hurt the artist the most. Artists want escape just like other people; every new project is an effort to make future accomplishment erase past pain. Ironically, the best artists never succeed–because they continually draw on the urges that made them artists in the first place.

These issues are all too often forgotten, or simply ignored, in a media-saturated world where art is a commodity–in which consideration of the emotional (as well as ethical) issues involved in a work of art, and of the artist’s compulsion to make art, takes a distant second place to considerations of how it will affect the celebrity the artist must be seeking. (Why else be an artist in the first place? goes the reasoning.) There is, as they say, no business like show business.

Another Time, by Ronald Harwood, explores the gulfs of understanding that exist between an artist and his admirers–especially those admirers who think they understand him the best because they helped make him what he is. Leonard Lands is a classical pianist, born and raised in Cape Town, South Africa, then trained in Europe. In the 1980s, when the play’s second act takes place, Leonard is rich and famous; now based in London, he is scheduled to return to South Africa to play a homecoming concert. He has decided to cancel the engagement as a statement of protest against apartheid, and must break the news to his elderly mother, who he knows has been eagerly anticipating the event. But Leonard’s crisis–how will he tell his mother and how will she respond?–masks a deeper crisis.

The real issue for Leonard is not politics but his own unresolved pain and its crippling effects on his art. The source of that pain is the subject of the play’s first act, set in Cape Town in the early 1950s. There Harwood shows us Leonard’s boyhood family life–the almost constant hostility that exists between his parents, interrupted by occasional happy interludes in which young Leonard revels even while he tenses in anticipation of the next angry outburst. Leonard’s father Ike, a Lithuanian Jew, is plagued by illnesses both psychological and physical; they are manifested in a paralyzed hand that makes him incapable of work. That leaves Leonard’s mother Belle, a British-born Pole, responsible for both winning the bread and making it at home. Her resentment of that and the resulting household tensions drive young Leonard to seek escape in his piano playing.

These are not extraordinary circumstances, of course; but Harwood depicts them with quiet eloquence, poignant humor, and a wealth of detail as he examines the patterns of Leonard’s life over the passage of the next 35 years. And as director as well as writer, he makes the specifics of the Lands’ story resonate with unsettling power through some very cannily structured stagecraft. The first two scenes of each act, though presented sequentially, take place at the same time, on two sides of a wall. In act one, the wall separates the Land family’s sitting room, where Ike holds forth on his gastric distress and the unfairness of life in general, from the bedroom, Belle’s sole province since Ike has been banished. In act two, the wall divides a recording studio and a control booth. This wall has a big window, but the images people on either side of it see of the people on the other side are misleading; what looks like a cozy mother-son chat to observers is really a devastating admission of distance between Leonard and Belle, for instance.

The two different walls (each adorned with a clock) are a key example of the way Harwood captures the differences between the two eras of Leonard’s life–and Harwood’s own, judging from his program-note acknowledgment of the play’s autobiographical sources. In the 1950s, problems were kept hidden: bickering parents didn’t divorce, an alienated son paid obeisance to his father, and no one talked about politics. In the 1980s, things are more open: grown-up Leonard is divorced from his own wife, his own son makes his oedipal resentments explicit, and people talk about politics. Though not much; a key issue in the play is the capacity of British whites for ignoring South Africa’s racial friction, leaving the matter up to the blacks and the Afrikaners while taking refuge in British culture and art.

I think more than a few American playgoers will feel put off by Another Time’s lack of engagement of the political circumstances that surround its story and by the emotional restriction that pervades the play. But Harwood is being true to his characters; he eschews overt intensity in favor of inferred psychological turmoil. Even the action that brings the drama’s crisis to its climax–when Leonard, 35 years after the fact, finally cries for his dead father and everything connected to that relationship–feels restrained, held back, and therefore very real given the people and place Harwood is writing about.

Such restraint isn’t easy to play, especially for the American actors who make up the cast supporting English star Albert Finney (who appeared in the play’s 1989 British premiere, as here, as both Ike and grown-up Leonard). For that matter, restraint isn’t Finney’s forte either; he’s a vigorous and physical actor, and Leonard’s repressed inner turbulence doesn’t reach the audience quite as keenly as it should. (It would be wonderful to see what Derek Jacobi or Tom Courtenay would make of this role.) Finney’s Ike, on the other hand, is a fascinating fool–pinching his lips in response to ever-present gastric discomfort, chuckling over a piece of useless information he’s gleaned from the encyclopedia (that’s where he turns to escape), or humming blithely along with the stormy Rachmaninoff prelude young Leonard is playing in the next room in an effort to drown out his parents’ fighting. Finney’s Ike is absolutely charming–and you can see just how hideous it would be to actually live with this man.

Of the other actors, Molly Regan has the juiciest role, and she makes the most of it; she’s Rose, Leonard’s plain spinster aunt, who has invested the passion she will never share with a man into an almost religious devotion to British culture–a passion that knows no bounds, or logic for that matter. (“Thank God for the empire,” she tells young Leonard. “Without the British Empire you’d be talking Zulu.”) The rest–Terry Kinney as Leonard’s bookish uncle, Andrew White as young Leonard and as Leonard’s own rebellious son Jeremy, and Rondi Reed as Belle–are less successful in more subtly challenging roles; Reed in particular drains the reined-in energy of the play’s ending when she delivers Belle’s final monologue–a chilling attempt to find solace by denying her own responsibility for the imperfect relations between her and Leonard–without any clear sense of the conflict beneath the words.

But the imperfect acting is offset by the potently evocative images Harwood has created with his cast on Kevin Rigdon’s brilliantly designed and lit sets. The muted colors of the Lands’ South African home make a poignant, photographlike setting for the primal battles between Ike and Belle; the dimmed lights and sleek lines of the London recording studio perfectly capture the sense of a secure, contained world that Leonard seeks to create–and, by not going back to Cape Town, to preserve. The sprawling, high-tech studio is a world of the future; it’s also a spacious arena in which Leonard learns that the past can never be forgotten.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.