Actors have a very bad reputation as human beings. The nature of their work and the strange hours they keep mean they’re often seen as childish, irresponsible liars, people with substance-abuse problems or, at the very least, a few neuroses. Plays like Lewis John Carlino’s The Exercise perpetuate these myths by portraying actors as self-indulgent nut cases unable to discern the boundaries between reality and fantasy.
The Exercise purports to be an exploration of reality and illusion, and not only the characters but the playwright play mind games. Of course Tom Stoppard and Edward Albee have made such themes their trademark–and indeed The Exercise has some qualities of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Though Carlino’s characters are like George and Martha, now divorced and actors, his work is trite and pedantic in comparison to Albee’s.
The plot, such as it is, involves an unnamed actor and actress rehearsing a play, presumably for a Broadway production–the script indicates that they’re fairly well known. Clearly they were romantically involved in the past, and perhaps married (one line indicates this, but otherwise it isn’t mentioned).
The two meet at the theater before the full rehearsal because the woman is having trouble with her part. Shortly it becomes apparent that she has trouble working from any written text; she’d rather play improvisational games. Why he goes along with her is anyone’s guess. Each improvisation gets more and more cruel, and soon they are far away from the world of their play and deep into their pasts. They begin a contest: who can tell when an improv is completely fictional and when it’s based on truth? Neither is very good at telling the difference, a good indication of what their problems as a couple might have been.
Their main problem, though, is the woman’s insane manipulation. She decides what they will do, makes all the rules, and becomes enraged when her partner doesn’t want to continue or behaves badly when she pushes him too hard. What emerges is a portrait of an extremely disturbed and possessive woman, an actress who needs the theater as therapy; the relatively normal, funny man is her enabler. He consistently allows himself to be pushed into playing her games, apparently out of some complex feelings for her that are never revealed. Their personal problems are discussed only in terms of the theater–what makes for good acting and good drama.
Carlino is the victim of his own discussion, however, becoming so involved with the philosophy that he fails to create an interesting work. Many of the accusations flung about onstage–that one or the other is masturbatory, deluded, selfish–could also be directed against the playwright, who seems more interested in theater games than in creating a play. But there are reasons why acting exercises are kept in the classroom. They’re meant for the growth of the actor, not the satisfaction of an audience. In a play made up of exercises, at the very least the audience must like the characters enough to want to put up with the self-indulgent exercises to find out more about them. But we barely meet these actors before they throw themselves into their private world.
The core of the play’s problem is that it never leaves the world of theater. Carlino doesn’t expand his discussion, doesn’t even ask what makes theater interesting or important. He simply looks at why actors act, and the different ways they can work. Maybe I’m jaded, but that question doesn’t seem likely to interest anyone except other actors. To the extent it can be engaging, it was explored more fully in A Chorus Line.
Some elements of The Exercise are intriguing. Carlino plays with the concept of the fourth wall, opening up the question of whether the characters know that the audience is there. He also chooses to blur the distinction between his characters and the real people portraying them, so there’s always a question in the audience’s mind as well. And some of Carlino’s ideas about theater are quite interesting–to people in theater.
Both actors have marvelous moments. Kate Harris is particularly exciting to watch when she turns passionate about the work her character is doing, what she is learning about herself. Her fervor is palpable as she rants desperately about what theater means to her. She also has a wonderful singing voice–it’s a joy to listen to her in a private moment, just singing to herself. Kenneth Cavett’s strength lies in his charm, though he’s at his best when he’s not giving in to the actress’s whims. Although much of the play consists of the games, Cavett is most interesting when he’s out of the game, trying to focus on what is actually happening: his is the voice of reason. His style is more natural than Harris’s, a nice foil to her artiness.
But both actors are insufficiently interested in telling a story, too keyed in to the theater as a tool to unlock their own inner demons. Harris and Cavett are as masturbatory in their portrayals as their characters are in theirs. Though both are highly skilled performers, with little fear and good rapport, they seem to feel, with the playwright, that the intricacies of developing characters are as interesting as the characters themselves–and that is patently untrue. Otherwise theaters would charge admission to their rehearsals.
Both actors also get wrapped up in the moment-by-moment action and forget to play a through line. As a result, their conflicts are always the same, played over and over with no resolution. They luxuriate in their games, allowing the action to go on when nothing is actually happening (the play is about two and a half hours long). And both have a habit of giggling at inappropriate moments, which makes their emotions and relationship difficult to read. The primary flaw, however, in this directorless production is that neither character plays with the shifting audience boundaries Carlino has suggested in the script–both play only with each other.
Perhaps The Exercise needs true celebrities to accomplish its purpose. Maybe Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, or Maggie Smith and Michael Caine, might be able to induce some real interest in these characters–certainly the smudging of truth and fiction would be more titillating. But even then, this would still be a play by, for, and about the theater, perpetuating cruel stereotypes of actors. I have to question whether its aims warrant a full-length play.