Mrs. Klein

at the Royal George Theatre Center

By Adam Langer

The curtain call tells the story. After the lights fade on the final scene of Nicholas Wright’s sometimes engaging but often drearily mechanical drama, Amy Wright steps forward meekly. Wright–who plays Paula, a young, troubled psychoanalyst desperate for the attention of famed Viennese analyst Melanie Klein–performs a demure, tightly wound bow close to a curtsy. Then Laila Robins bounds out, as self-assured and sturdy as she was during her finest moments as Klein’s analyst daughter Melitta, striving to emerge from the shadow of her illustrious and imposing mother. Yet Robins’s sweeping bow and grandiose manner seem somewhat overreaching.

Finally Uta Hagen, grande dame of the American theater, strides out to deafening applause. With her hands raised slightly above her head, she gazes skyward. Perhaps she’s giving thanks to the muses who’ve guided her through her performance as Klein. Perhaps she’s sending her good wishes to the spirits of her theatrical contemporaries who’ve long since left this earth while she forges on. Like Robins, she bows grandly, but Hagen is far more graceful and majestic, revealing Robins’s bow to be little more than a pale imitation. Hers are the movements of royalty, with the weight of history behind them. Hagen can’t help herself. Even at the curtain call she steals the show, eclipsing the pretenders and the unworthy.

Hagen’s grandeur is clearly the greatest asset of Mrs. Klein, which closes this Sunday. But it’s also something of a liability: she continually blows her less experienced, less skilled counterparts off the stage, leading what appears to be less an ensemble effort than a futile foot race in which Wright and Robins strive vainly to keep pace with her. Though Nicholas Wright paints a very critical portrait of Klein as callous and overbearing, Hagen’s performance is hypnotic. Every detail captures attention: the timbre of her voice, the menacing way she fingers the stem of a glass, her powerful stance, one hand on her hip and the other clutching a cigarette. Even when she looks out the window, turning her back on the other performers, she still holds the focus.

Hagen’s dominance over Wright and Robins mirrors Klein’s dominance over Paula and Melitta in the script. An imperious woman so dedicated to her profession that she made her children guinea pigs for her psychoanalytic studies, Klein demonstrates the worst possible qualities of both analysts and Jewish mothers. Capable of silencing those around her with either smothering maternal affection or caustic remarks, Klein was responsible for her son’s mysterious death in a hiking accident, the script suggests, and for her daughter’s estrangement: Melitta spent her professional life attacking her mother’s theories.

Set in 1930s London, where Klein achieved her greatest notoriety by refuting some of Freud’s ideas, Mrs. Klein is less concerned with psychoanalytic theory than with putting the antiheroine herself on the couch. Despite its lofty, well-crafted language, Wright’s script is reminiscent of a Mommie Dearest, warts-and-all celebrity biography. Taking place over the course of about 24 hours, the play concerns Melitta’s last-ditch attempt to break her mother by telling her the story of her son’s suicide, only to find herself shut out and replaced by Paula, the analyst who’s come to work for Klein. (The content recalls Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming, in which a son’s efforts to step out of the shadows of his family are further evidence of his subservience.)

Nicholas Wright’s triangle of shrinks makes for a competent but rather hackneyed and talky play that’s ultimately too formulaic to be anything more than a star vehicle. Rather than constructing three equally credible characters, Wright develops his psychoanalysts in order of importance. The script is weighed down with analyses, histories, and judgments of Klein, even telegraphing the way in which she emasculated her son by having her slice through a salami as she describes her childhood. Meanwhile Paula remains a cipher, forced to spend much of her stage time as a silent witness to Klein and Melitta’s shrill arguments. The explanations for her reverence for Klein are ambiguous at best. There’s a suggestion that Paula’s passivity is intentional, an effort to encourage the split between Klein and Melitta and thus claim Klein’s attentions exclusively for herself. But Wright never follows through on this intriguing line of thought, and his failure undermines the nifty denouement, in which Paula indeed takes over Melitta’s filial role.

William Carden’s sleek production unfortunately accents some of the script’s greatest failings. Confronted with three unequal characters, Carden seems to have directed Amy Wright and Robins in act one not to develop their own performances but to try and match Hagen’s physical and emotional intensity–a Sisyphean enterprise to be sure. Wright in particular spends a good deal of the first act shouting at unnatural decibel levels in a distressingly inconsistent accent. Largely mute during the second act, she seems less an interested party than the uncertain observer of a master acting class, waiting patiently to do her scene and get slammed by the professor. And though Robins is truly spellbinding in the second act when Melitta bravely confronts her formidable mother, this is the only opportunity she gets to develop her character; by play’s end her performance reeks of surrender. Most of the time Carden has directed her to pallidly imitate Hagen’s gait and speech patterns. And like her final bow, Robins’s Uta Hagen Jr. routine seems unnecessarily servile and futile: there are far subtler and more compelling ways to convey subordination than to mimic a superior actress.

Robins’s and Wright’s fruitless efforts to compete or imitate have a depressing air of resignation, as if the actors realized midway through rehearsals that they were not in Hagen’s league and there was nothing they could do about it. As they stand beside her on Ray Recht’s rather mothballed-looking set, whose tastefully chosen furniture suggests the Studebaker Theater circa 1940, they convey the eerie impression we’re watching theater’s past and future simultaneously. Bridging the considerable gap between the two, Hagen stands alone, hands held upward, eyes looking up, praying perhaps for someone who’ll be able to fill her shoes.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Carol Rosegg.