The Gift/by Joanna Murray-Smith/directed by Maria Aitken/Geffen Playhouse/through March 10
Many will be vehemently opposed to the theme of Joanna Murray-Smith's The Gift, for it concerns undoing primary parental obligation. It is forgivable when an artist sometimes allows his livelihood to take precedence over his parental duties, but to negate them is nothing short of immoral/criminaL. Murray-Smith toys with where an artist's loyalties should lie in an unpredictable comedy/drama that will leave audience discussing the subject matter long after they leave the theatre. Isn't that what good theatre is meant to do? In its US premiere at the Geffen, The Gift cannot, should not be dismissed.
How far do you go, ho much do you sacrifice for your art? For concept artist Martin (James Van Der Beek) and journalist/wife Chloe (Jaime Ray Newman) it's passion, all or nothing: much, much more than Ed and Sadie (Chris Mulkey and Kathy Baker) can handle. Backing up a bit, the two couples come together while vacationing. Ed and Sadie are celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary, and have gotten much too comfortable in their marriage. A self-made man in wood-making machinery, Ed thumbs his nose at Martin's "job" in the arts, as lacking substance and purpose. Sadie ,on the other hand, is intrigued by the younger Martin and Chloe, who have total admiration for each other as lovers. It's a game of new versus old, nonconformity versus tradition. Unlikely bonds of friendship form and the four become practically inseparable. And when an accident occurs in which Martin saves Ed's life, Ed's attitudes change miraculously; he begins anew. As a result, he and Sadie wish to bestow a gift upon their saviors, forming the substance of the second half of the play.
The first half is drinking while getting to know one another, opening up profusely, lightly making fun of one another's efforts, in short, it's almost an hour of sheer comedy; then, the tables turn abruptly, and the heavy drama ensues. Murray-Smith is very witty, but, unlike many writers, has that uncanny ability to turn that wit into a weapon that cuts brutally to the bone. When Chloe and Martin reveal what they want as a gift from Ed and Sadie, all hell breaks loose and at play's end we are left with only a glimmer of what may happen for all concerned.
The acting ensemble are outstanding under Maria Aitken's smooth, caring direction. Her consistently staccato pacing works effectively throughout. Baker gives Sadie a seemingly carefree but supportive attitude and as narrator acts as the mouthpiece for Murray-Smith. With a firm grasp on reality she makes Sadie connected and loving toward everyone. Mulkey brings a down-to-earth quality which works beautifully with Ed's distrust. His confusion with anything intangible lends great humor and his volatile reactions to the secret are painstakingly credible. Van Der Beek and Newman make the young couple bright, playful and outwardly optimistic about their hopes for the future, never arrogant. Even when their secret wish is met with doubt and rejection, they remain cool. Derek McLane's big, open contemporary set design with projections behind designed by Howard Werner to distinguish between city and tropical ambiances, colorful lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski and practical costume design by Laura Bauer all add fine accompaniment.
The Gift is a difficult piece which will be met with a lot of negative reactions, especially from traditionalists who despise the selfish motivations of the younger generation. Apart from the main theme, many will not buy into the friendship formed between the divergent couples. It would also be nice if the younger couple filled us in on more of their background. And the ending is, as written, somewhat vague. Murray-Smith may wish to do more fleshing out if the piece is to have legs. But, in spite of its flaws, as intelligent, unpredictable, well acted/directed theatre, it deserves to be seen and heard. Like life, it's a roller coaster ride filled with mirth, danger, frustration and ultimate consternation.