The Huntington’s The Hopper Collection
Edward Hopper meets Edward Albee in The Hopper Collection, a flawed but intriguing new play by Mat Smart that’s receiving its East Coast premiere from the Huntington Theatre Company (at Boston University Theatre through April 2). The set-up is pure Albee: the wife of a vitriolic older couple has invited a younger pair over for the evening. Marjorie, however, is a maniacally ditzy elderly beauty who was the inspiration for the swimsuit-clad damsel of Hopper’s smoky 1947 painting Summer Evening. Daniel, a rich and besotted art dealer, has spent what he likens to the cost of the Dallas Cowboys to buy her the painting. Still, she hates him and apparently makes a game of ineptly attempting to kill him. The pair live in fabulously appointed isolation, each occupying one side of an art-filled contemporary aerie (gorgeously and chunkily designed for the Huntington by Adam Stockhausen) and coming together only in a stark living room dominated by the backward-facing canvas Marjorie has never broken free of. The play spends 90 alternately acerb and touching minutes ripping her off that post-war porch.
Smart is a twentysomething writer of obvious talent who spent 15 years playing piano — which may be why his work unfolds musically (observing the Unities!) rather than in the blackout-sketch form typical of his generation. The Hopper Collection, though blither and less operatic, is self-consciously derivative of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? But rather than depicting Daniel and Marjorie duking it out to the death of illusion, Smart makes Daniel an ex-amateur boxer who uses his parlor pugilism like an aphrodisiac, shadow-punching in an attempt to seduce his wife. She has eyes only for Hopper, whom she met once, briefly, when the painter was 65.
If we respect the play’s time line, Marjorie would have to be over 75. At the Huntington, she is superbly played, with a mix of regal charm and instability, by statuesque Leslie Lyles, her long legs planted no farther up the age scale than the middle years. Ditto Bruce McKenzie, whose scathing, wiry Daniel looks about 50. It’s hard to know how some latter-day Cronyns might alter the play’s dynamic. Would the cat-and-mouse love-hate play-acting seem ludicrous or just sadder? And though the premise is plausible (Summer Evening is in private hands), its ending, albeit a breakthrough for the couple, is a bit horrifying.
Smart also seems less sure in his handling of younger couple Edward and Sarah, whose free-floating loneliness (and coming together in an all-night coffee shop reminiscent of Nighthawks) forms a contemporary riff on Hopper. Edward has written Marjorie asking to view the painting. His ticket in: he’s dying of a brain tumor and the girlfriend he can’t forget has sent him a blank postcard with Summer Evening on the front. He hopes bringing her to see the painting will unlock her message. Yet Sarah (Therese Barbato), who arrives late, is not what she seems. Edward, like Marjorie, does not recapture the moment with which he has come to identify Hopper’s painting. But apparently that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to do on one’s deathbed but die. Under Daniel Aukin’s direction, the polished Huntington production captures both the barbed sophistication of the warring Daniel and Marjorie and the innocence at the heart of the play, whether that’s impressionable Marjorie being sexually flash-frozen in 1947 or the moribund Edward, who in Brian Leahy’s portrayal approaches the grave with a comical, open-faced and open-hearted naïveté reminiscent more of Beaver in extremis than Bette Davis in Dark Victory. There’s considerable promise in The Hopper Collection, which takes a painting that would seem to contain a story and gives it a clever, slightly absurdist sequel.
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