By Brian Scott Lipton
As Joni Mitchell once famously sang, “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.” Within mere seconds of her first appearance in Alexi Kaye Campbell’s Apologia, Stockard Channing reminds us how much we’ve missed witnessing her onstage since her last outing (“It’s Only a Play” in 2015). Better still, that feeling never leaves us during our two-and-a-quarter hours at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre.
The arched eyebrow, the razor-sharp, martini-dry delivery of a barb, the barely concealed hurt traveling across her face, the deep emotional connection to a character: all of these qualities come to the fore in Channing’s superb portrayal of Kristin Miller. An expatriate American long ensconced in England, Kristin is—among other things—a die-hard pacifist and idealist still hanging onto her ‘60s-era beliefs (the play is set shortly after the election of Barack Obama), a world-famous art historian and intellectual who insists on making others defend the specificity of words and their meanings over common social discourse, and, above all, a woman who somewhat reluctantly chose her career over her two now-grown children, the mentally troubled Simon and the financially successful if still angry Peter (both played by Hugh Dancy, particularly effective in the former role), and who is still grappling with the consequences of her actions. As a role, Kristin is Grade-A sirloin steak and Channing cuts it apart expertly and devours it heartily.
Sad to say, the play that surrounds Channing/Kristin is a bit more like meat loaf, full of too many ingredients and not always easily digestible. It’s admirable that Campbell isn’t content just writing another “dysfunctional family sitting around the table” play. (The action is set in the hours before, during and after Kristin’s ill-fated birthday dinner.) But Apologia, directed with admirable simplicity by Daniel Aukin, ultimately tackles more subjects than it can comfortably handle, and, as a result, too much of the dialogue ends up as bald-faced exposition or heavy-handed explanation rather than believable conversation.
Moreover, while we’re most fascinated at what should be the real subject of the play—Kristin’s conflict with her sons and herself—there’s too much time spent on the virtues and vices of organized religion, a subject introduced via Peter’s new girlfriend, the seemingly naïve and too-polite Nebraska native Trudi (a very fine Talene Monahan, navigating tricky waters with aplomb); a lengthy digression on the meaning of artistry when it comes to acting, courtesy of Simon’s glamorous, soap-opera-star girlfriend Claire (the excellent Megalyn Echikunwoke); and a few too-easy grenades thrown at the idea of un-rampant capitalism.
Because of this weighty imbalance, we are truly grateful for the play’s comic relief provided by Kristin’s longtime pal Hugh, embodied by the brilliantly funny John Tillinger (a noted director returning to acting after 45 years). And Campbell does provide two stunning monologues—one for Kristin describing how Giotto revolutionized how we think about religious art, the other for Simon about his encounter as a young boy with an older man at an Italian station—that are practically worth the price of admission.
To be fair, the latter isn’t exactly a monologue, and as the possibly horrible outcome of Simon’s meeting hangs in the air, the looks of concern and self-recrimination on Kristin’s face and her near-constant question of ‘did he hurt you?” are harrowing and heartbreaking. Not every actress could manage this feat, but as Channing has long proved, her acting arsenal is better stocked than almost anyone else’s.
Apologia. Through December 16 the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre (111 West 46th Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues) www.roundabouttheatre.org
Photos: Joan Marcus