The situation is this: On the one hand you've got a shamelessly coy play that keeps winking at you and dropping little hints about what's happening and what it all might mean; a play bursting with its own importance that falls far short of its promise. On the other hand, you've got one of the greatest actresses ever to grace a stage making a rare appearance in an even rarer tour. What do you do? I say if you can afford it (the orchestra seats are going for $50), opt for history and plunk down your money to see Uta Hagen. You won't be disappointed in her, although you may find that Mrs. Klein does not measure up.
Written by Nicholas Wright and briskly directed by William Carden, Mrs. Klein pits the famous child analyst against her daughter, Melitta (Laila Robins). The occasion is the suspicious death of her son, Hans. The playwright has taken the few actual facts available to him and tried to imagine what really happened: Did Hans commit suicide as Melitta believes?
Or was it merely an unfortunate accident having little or nothing to do with his famous mother and the fact that she subjected both children to (her) psychoanalysis?
At curtain's rise (the handsome drawing room set is by Ray Recht), Mrs. Klein is openly weeping and talking to Paula (Amy Wright), a mousy young woman who listens with the attention of the obsessively devoted. Paula has been summoned to correct the proofs of the "second German-language edition" of an unnamed work, very possibly Klein's landmark study, Psychoanalysis of Children. That we never find out which book is being worked on is only one among numerous annoyances that accumulate steadily over the two acts. What we do discover is doled out slyly with virtually no dramatic payoff, as though the play's central purpose and action were the simple dispensing of information.
Melitta's arrival on the scene is cloaked with the same air of mystery. It's a surprise that she and Paula know one another, that Paula has never met Mrs. Klein until this very evening, and that Paula was referred by none other than Melitta's husband. They're all analysts, it turns out. And they're all stuck in childish behavior and banal resentments. Melitta's biggest beef against Mom, it would seem, is that Mom missed a childhood birthday. This strikes me, for one, as small potatoes next to the overwhelming cruelty of having been forced into analysis by and with one's own mother.
As background is peeled away in endless layers, we scramble to get the big picture. Teasers that sound like clues turn out only to be teasers: a poppy seed cake that reminds Klein of her mother; a copy of a poem Hans wrote; a sealed letter with the ominous instructions not to open it; and so forth.
The real conflict in Klein's relationship to her children remains indistinct and unrealized. Conflict, the state that exists when two opposing forces meet, requires the taking of action, not self-dramatization. Mrs. Klein, on the other hand, is an acting-out of the mother-daughter clash, not the conflict itself. There's a vague sense that they want to connect; but their problem seems to be that neither will give ground so that can happen. It leaves some uncertainty about what they really want from one another.
So instead of lively, active drama, we get an interesting anecdotal peek into lives we would not otherwise be privy to. As audience/observers, we are represented on the stage by Paula, who spends most of her time sitting quietly on the sofa, watching and listening. It is she, played by Wright with great subtlety and concentration, who turns out to have the clearest goal. And it is she who focuses interest over the course of two acts.
Robins has the complicated task of playing the daughter of a woman who was a star, who in turn is being played by a star. As Melitta, a respected psychotherapist whose accomplishments are automatically eclipsed by her mother's, Robins realizes that she is similarly in Hagen's shadow, and seems to have made the decision to model her performance on Hagen's as much as possible. The two women share a way of moving, for instance, that makes them seem off balance, as though the center of gravity of each was governed by constantly shifting ball bearings. At Melitta's initial appearance she's the worse for alcohol, but her movements remain calculatedly awkward even after she has surely sobered up. Hagen creates a Melanie Klein whose physical being is driven by an animal grief that virtually possesses her and against which she pretends to be powerless.
While Robins and Wright deliver sturdy, confident performances, Hagen is something else altogether: a superb example of that virtually extinct species, the Authentic Stage Star. In New York she's referred to by her first name, and always in hushed and intimate tones. Hagen has taught acting at HB Studios, founded by her husband, Herbert Berghoff, for almost 50 of her 77 years; her Respect for Acting is considered required reading among students. Her phenomenal career began in classics with the likes of Eva La Gallienne and the Lunts and swiftly progressed to creating such roles as Georgie in Odets' The Country Girl and Martha in Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? She reminds me of someone on the order of All About Eve's Margo Channing: a hugely imposing woman, towering with vitality and presence. But Hagen seems to have managed legendary status without the crippling vanity we associate with stardom, probably because she's never lost her passion for craft.
And judging from the performance she gives at the Geary, it's unlikely audiences will ever lose their passion for her. She simply commands the stage from beginning to end, her honey-rich voice roughened by cigarettes, her presence open and receptive. I wish the play were half so satisfying.
Mrs. Klein runs through Sept. 1.