BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
OFF BROADWAY REVIEW
The difference between crass and class is sharply illustrated by two solo shows now staged in theaters situated a mere three blocks apart.
Over at Studio 54, Carrie Fisher cheerfully dishes the dirt on her screwy Hollywood heritage in "Wishful Drinking": Nasty stuff about parental scandal, substance abuse, bi-polar excess and similar tabloid topics, rendered for laughs from Fisher's wry point of view.
Meanwhile, "Nightingale" opened Tuesday at Manhattan Theatre Club's off-Broadway space at New York City Center. Lynn Redgrave's latest solo piece regarding her illustrious family of actors is a classy flight of fancy in which she forgets her own troubles by artfully reconstructing a forgotten ancestor's life.Redgrave's previous "Shakespeare for My Father" studied her uneasy relationship with the great Sir Michael Redgrave. "The Mandrake Root" concerned her actress-mother, Rachel Kempson. The 80-minute "Nightingale" is Redgrave's mostly fictionalized incarnation of her maternal grandmother, Beatrice.
A breast cancer survivor, Redgrave recently underwent further medical treatments and so without apology – and only occasionally – refers to a script set out on a small table.
Manifesting noblesse oblige as a worthy member of a theatrical dynasty, Redgrave makes a gracious entrance before sitting down at the table and literally rolling up the sleeves of her cardigan.
As a prelude, Redgrave plunges into a brief, highly impressionistic pool of her own real-life sorrows. About the wreckage of an empty, 32-year marriage that produced three children. Cancer. The near-death of her brother Corin. About the passing of her mother and – without mentioning Natasha Richardson by name – the accidental death this year of her radiant niece. "Chaos," Redgrave calls it.
Already visiting the family graveyard, Redgrave is inspired to conjure up her formidable, frosty grandmother, Beatrice, an Edwardian bride who made a loveless marriage and lived to realize it. Imagining Beatrice's sheltered English girlhood, Redgrave assumes the voice and nature of a child. As Beatrice's life progresses, Redgrave's voice and manner gradually changes to reflect her maturity.
The piece's title comes from a wistful sequence when the married, rigidly middle class Beatrice is on summer holiday and finds herself drawn to a handsome farmer who recognizes the impossibility of anything happening between them but also acknowledges their mutual attraction.
Other striking passages cover the loss of Beatrice's favorite child in World War Two, Beatrice's jealous comments about her daughter Rachel's starring performance in "A Doll's House" in the West End and a late-life experience in Switzerland that evokes an early memory. Skillfully creating the voices of other people in Beatrice's mostly bitter existence, Redgrave intermittently resurfaces into her own world, which doesn't seem quite so bleak by comparison.
Director Joseph Hardy sets Redgrave against a modest, atmospheric backdrop of vintage postcards, countryside vistas and, yes, a village churchyard. Sorrowfully as this "Nightingale" sings, Redgrave's thoughtful writing and assured performance give the piece a strong sense of life. Situated as she is near to the edge of the stage, the trim, smoky-haired actress' personal glow – characteristic of the extended Redgrave clan – is a pleasure to experience, especially within MTC's 300-seat theater.
No doubt that nearby "Wishful Drinking" memoir affords its audience scandalous amusement. But the significant difference between Fisher's bawdy entertainment and Redgrave's elegant "Nightingale" is not just the difference between watching a personality versus watching an excellent actor perform.
The contrast in their approach to dark personal history also is quite distinct. Fisher shows her loved ones (and herself) little mercy. Redgrave treats her family always with respect and tender good will.
"Nightingale" continues through Dec. 13 at New York City Center, 131 W. 55th St., New York Call (212) 581-1212 or visit nycitycenter.org.