"The Gift" is the second offering by Australian playwright Joanne Murray-Smith to have its U.S. premiere at L.A.’s Geffen Playhouse. The 2010 production of her feminist satire, "The Female of the Species," featured a fine actress, Annette Bening, hampered by a misfired script.
At first, Murray-Smith’s newest work to bow here appears to be a cross between a marital malaise drama, a la Edward Albee, and the sophisticated boulevard comedies of Yasmina Reza ("Art," "God of Carnage"). In the end, the new work, directed by Maria Aitken, primarily comes across as a talky dramedy that saves its big surprise until far into its 90-minute running time. Though the cast is engaging and the production is handsome, the play ultimately feels like much ado about too little.
We first meet Sadie (the appealing Kathy Baker) delivering a soliloquy that describes her marriage to a highly successful businessman Ed (Chris Mulkey). She confides about how their once joyous marriage has given way to middle-age doldrums since they joined the realm of the bored nouveau rich.
She is looking forward to a vacation celebrating their 25th anniversary at a remote island getaway, in hopes that the old romantic magic can be reignited. Like much of what follows, this monologue goes on longer than necessary, with lines that seem somewhat circuitous and only mildly amusing, despite Baker’s yeoman efforts.
As the action shifts to the island paradise, this couple from L.A. meets a pair of younger spouses from New York, Martin (James Van Der Beek), a conceptual artist, and Chloe (Jaime Ray Newman), a writer. The younger travelers clearly dote over each other, in contrast to the ennui that seems to have settled into the marriage of the elder couple.
The two couples begin to converse and it’s soon evident they have an easy rapport. The passion and sophistication of Martin and Chloe are objects of envy to Sadie and Ed. At first, it’s less clear why the younger couple is drawn to their newfound friends. Ed is somewhat boorish, but somehow seems amusing to the yuppie couple.
As in the opening monologue, too much of the conversation in the group scenes doesn’t seem to be heading anywhere particularly significant. The repartee is funny at times, but the pace lags until a startling development occurs as the couples enjoy an evening in a sailboat.
A storm ensues, followed by a rescue. This incident creates an unexpected bond between the couples, followed by a sense of obligation and a promise to present a gift of gratitude. The remainder of the play involves the discussion of an appropriate gift, as the action shifts back to L.A. a year later.
There are surprises to be sure, but the nature of the gift is probably less startling than the playwright might have intended. Though the comedic mood shifts to something darker and more reflective, the play never quite evolves into the thought-provoking and provocative drama that Murray-Smith apparently intended.
Besides Baker’s admirable work, Mulkey does a creditable job, taking advantage of the role with the most opportunities for humor, and convincingly shading his portrayal with darker hues. Van Der Beek and Newman credibly convey the vitality and youthful promise of a couple who seem to have everything, adding believable shadings to their portrayals when it becomes apparent they want something more.
The chic production design beautifully serves the separate urban and tropical settings. Salutes are due to Howard Werner (media design), Derek McLane (scenic design), Laura Bauer (costumes), Peter Kaczorowski (lighting), and John Gromada (sound).