All it takes is a look, although she has quite a battery of words to wound those around her as well.
Stockard Channing, playing an art historian and former political radical called Kristin Miller, is turning sixtysomething in Alexi Kaye Campbell’s uneven but occasionally very funny play, Apologia. She is not going to be blowing out any candles on her gift of a mango meringue quietly.
In Dane Laffrey’s beautifully designed English big-house kitchen (really it’s perfect, right down to the window above the kitchen sink), it is 2009 and Kristin, talons sharpened, has just greeted her first guests: her son Peter (Hugh Dancy), a banker, and his Christian American girlfriend Trudi (Talene Monahon). Being awaited: her other son Simon (also played by Dancy), his girlfriend Claire (Megalyn Echikunwoke), and Claire’s stalwart friend Hugh (John Tillinger).
Before they get there, there is some comical business with a chicken that won’t cook; we soon see that matters of the home and hearth are not Kristin’s thing. She observes her oven as if it is an impenetrably complex spaceship control.
Take in instead the art on the walls, the books piled in every corner and along the walls. She is a feminist art historian, and more than that, back in the day, she marched for any cause she could alongside Hugh. The grist of the play, mounted by the Roundabout Theatre Company, is where this life of the mind and passionately-held placard left her two sons.
It is not an unfamiliar contention that sixties radicals, the leftiest of baby boomers, made lousy parents, more devoted to changing the world than changing nappies. But, as Hugh and Kristin make clear, changing the world, advocating for radicalism, was done with the intent of making the world better for the next generation.
The life-scarring problem, for Peter and Simon, is that their mother’s engagement with social issues and her all-consuming professional vocation made her absent—physically and emotionally.
Apologia, it emerges, is not just the title of the play, but also of Kristin’s book: “It means a formal, written defense of one’s opinions or conduct,” she says, adding, “Not to be confused with apology.”
Dramatically speaking, the emotional and domestic failures of baby-boomers is hardly fresh material. Thankfully, before the recriminations comes the comedy—resulting mainly, as ticket-buyers will hope, from Channing being as coldly imperious and withering to all who cross her path.
Trudy, desperate to ingratiate herself with her partner’s mother with superlative after superlative, is the first unfortunate lacerated by her glares and barbs, the best when Kristin notes Trudy’s “rich array of adjectives.” Both women may be American by birth but Kristin tells Trudy, “At least one of us is aspiring towards a vocabulary that avoids the kind of cliché found on the blurb of a self-help manual.”
If you want Stockard Channing at her Rizzo-from-Grease manqué best, then her languorous growl is on prime display in the first act of this play. For Peter, she’s “a bloody nightmare. Opinionated, didactic, dictatorial.” He furiously demands of her, “the question is why did this woman have children if she wasn’t prepared to do the job properly?”
In act two, Simon tells her, “I have to tell you now that the thing I remember most about you is your absence.”
Simon says this in a scene that should be moving between mother and son, but instead feels plodding and clichéd, right down to Channing’s belated embrace of a traditional maternal role in bandaging her son’s cut hand.
The biggest laugh, a mordant one, comes after Trudy tells her that America has just elected its first black president.
“That is a good thing, it’s true,” Kristin shoots back. “But let’s wait and see how things turn out in the long run.”
Monahon is excellent, which is to say unbearable: in the audience around me, every time Trudy opened her mouth, there was low-level sighing from the stalls. Her voice is of the nails-against-the-blackboard kind; her simpering ingratiation routine relentless, and sometimes she also sounds sniping, particularly when she notes that Kristin was not being her children when they were so young.
Kristin is the kind of nightmare that you’d never want to experience, but is, at least initially, delicious to watch. She, like us, is befuddled by Trudy and Peter’s gift of a mask from Liberia. This is classic, trying-too-hard Trudy over-reach.
Like Trudy, Claire, the star of a glossy soap opera, is also a handy target for Kristin. At first she seems expensively dressed and entirely vapid, with a resolute determination that her much-derided artform be respected. She recoils at the soap opera label: “It’s more of a serialized drama that follows the trajectories of various people’s lives.”
The look of radical demonstrations like against the Vietnam War outside the U.S. embassy in Grosvenor Square seem “sweet” to Claire. The daisies in the hair, the idealism, she trills to Kristin, “until you could afford a Bang and Olufsen stereo system and a house in the suburbs.”
Both Trudy and Claire aim to break the carapace, as Trudy puts it, of Kristin’s unknowability. Both seek to define Kristin and her faults. Kristin doesn’t respond to either, meaning what? They are so wrong she can’t be bothered? Or they are so right, and she’s busted? Whatever, she has a defender: Hugh. Tillinger is the wittiest performer on stage, a warm jester lightening the heaviness around the table, particularly after the revelation of one character’s adultery.
The problem in Apologia is, apart from the waspishness and pained self-regard of act one, the play fails to give Kristin much to chew into in the second, or much for us to read and understand. She is too opaque and her sons, as played by Dancy, too blank and done with it all.
She makes two longish speeches—one about the artist Giotto and why his art embodies “humanism emerging from the religious matrix,” and then she tells her sons, who tell her squarely that she has failed them, that all she did was to make a better world for them and was terribly upset when she lost custody of them.
There is no dramatic imperative in Apologia: we are merely eavesdropping on old hurts. There is an odd, long story which teases us with the possibility of a sexual assault suffered by Simon. The elongated telling of this story is a puzzle: it goes nowhere, and tells us nothing.
Kristin’s “apologia” fragments to a mysterious, ambiguous silence (is she bored? wounded? offended? over it already?) which is shattered right at the end.
But even that final moment, beautifully performed by Channing as it is, feels a clichéd betrayal of Apologia’s intent. In a play that sets itself up to be the story and explanation of a life, a meaningful explanation of Kristin remains absent.
Apologia is at the Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street, NYC, through December 16.