Theatre review

Rose Byrne and Bobby Cannavale take ‘Medea’ to a science lab, and Charles Busch’s brilliant ‘Lily Dare’

The Daily Beast

January 30, 2020

There’s little graphic violence in Simon Stone’s stark adaptation of “Medea” at BAM, starring a commanding Rose Byrne. Plus, go see Charles Busch’s brilliant drag in “Lily Dare.”


Welcome to a starkly staged, all-star Medea where you are invited to laugh with elements of the lead character’s madness, as well as be repelled and terrified by it. The performances are brilliant and the production slick, even if the story they’re telling is a little more baffling.

In this extremely contemporary, brief (80-minute) version, written and directed by Simon Stone “after Euripedes” that opens at BAM tonight (to March 8), the madness and death unfold on an all-white stage designed by Bob Cousins. This opens up to us like a laboratory-in-a-box, or a sumptuous envelope. For stretches, a camera lingers in close-up on faces, which are projected on to a screen above the stage.

If you saw Stone’s shocking imagining of Yerma starring Billie Piper at the Park Avenue Armory, you will recognize that the striking visual of the setting sets the tone for the pared-back crispness of the whole. It borrows and twists elements of the original classic text, just as in the other recent Medea adaptation, the immigration-themed Mojada which played at the Public Theater.

In the BAM production, Rose Byrne plays Anna, a biochemist recently released from a psychiatric institution after poisoning her husband, and former colleague, Lucas (Bobby Cannavale).

Lucas is now with the much-younger Clara (Madeline Weinstein). Anna wants him back, and the first obvious delusion we see—and the first obvious sign we see of the slalom to psychotic madness—is that Anna not only wants Lucas back, but also sees this as an inevitability, and similarly the opportunity re-form their family; they have two young kids, Edgar (Jolly Swag) and Gus (Orson Hong).

“Anna will remain balanced,” Byrne declares at the start of the show. And of course she won’t, and it invites nervous laughter. It’s as if Alex Forrest, Glenn Close’s character, had declared her love of bunny rabbits at the start of Fatal Attraction.

Even before Anna says that and when she and Lucas reunite after her hospitalization we see two people in very different stages of relating to one another; he is wary and she is ebullient and hopeful, mischievous and joshing. We watch her face, the minute changes of expression that Byrne so skillfully plays—vacancy, engagement, jesting, challenge.

Cannavale plays Lucas as a man keen to contain something he knows, and fears to be uncontainable. He is managing a situation, and not very well. The children are beautifully played, alternately hard-edged, sarcastic, and sweet. There is a moment where they tease their father by refusing to hand over a wine bottle; it starts out as play and in seconds becomes combustible—which speaks to the emotional transitions in the show too.

Jordan Boatman plays Elsbeth, a social worker, Victor Almanzar, a bookshop owner called Herbert, and Dylan Baker is Christopher, the lead scientist at the lab where Lucas and Anna worked, and also Clara’s father. Given that the actors playing them are excellent, all three are disappointingly under-developed but useful levers for plot advancement.

As the 80-minute timespan denotes, Stone is a brisk storyteller. There is no verbal dawdling by these characters; they speak to each other with clipped exactitude. Everything is blunt and literal.

Cannavale and Byrne (a real-life couple of seven years standing) deliver immaculate performances, variously studded with wit, fury, desperation and nuttiness. But elements of the plot jar; more than once, you wonder if, for example, these characters would really behave like this. Would Lucas give himself over to Anna’s rehabilitation in the obviously trouble-inviting way he does, after she has tried to injure him so appallingly? Yes, they have children, but—as a sensible, thinking person—would he not know this was adding fuel to the fire of a mind of a damaged, obsessive person?

There is no sense that he nurses a deep passion for her, so when—a second after telling her he will punch her—they begin kissing and then have sex, it feels the worst of hackneyed devices.

Stone also inserts a sudden left-turn that it is Anna who was the brilliant scientist, while Lucas was second-rate and now getting all the glory and career advancement. And so, hmmm, her poisoning and fury with him was not just down to adultery, but also down to anger over sexism and workplace discrimination? It may ring all too true as a contemporary theme, but it does not convince on stage with this particular couple.

As he is currently played, Lucas doesn’t seem bad at his job. We have no idea how good a scientist he is. We are not sure how bad a husband he has been, come to that. He just seems to be within an impossible situation, keenly aware he must be culpable of something and terrified of where it will all end. Should we trust all Anna’s anger over his failings, given that she is mad?

It also makes no sense (to me, anyway) that Christopher, having heard that Lucas has cheated on his daughter, insists he go back to Clara, beg for her forgiveness, “and bring her roses and take her to Venice for the weekend and buy her a fuckload of pretty things…what you’re going to do is fix this and you’re going to get her pregnant too, so that she really knows you mean it…” This, again, comes out of nowhere from a character who up until now has shown no meaningful interest in his daughter’s happiness.

There are some beautifully written moments, such as when Edgar shows Clara the video of Lucas and Anna in bed, post-coitus and instead of a familiarly staged confrontation, Stone has Clara instead make clear to Anna how brilliant and intimate their relationship is.

The biggest departure from Medea-norms is that this production diverges from the bloody horror that the play traditionally ends in, capped with a mother murdering her children. Stone told The New York Times that he didn’t want to stage anything too graphic. “I made it for the women I know that would never want to sit through that show,” he said. “It’s not helpful to make a horror story.”

To that end, there is blood but not that much, and there are no on-stage scenes of brutality and violence. Instead, Stone crafts a visually stunning lament, featuring an atonal dirge and what looks like falling ash—the harbinger of this adaptation’s ultimate tragedy—that eventually is spread all over the stage, and which the characters march through and coat themselves in.

This refusal to play out the text’s familiar violence is in one way admirable—we are so used now to film, TV, and theater reveling in the exact opposite. But Medea, and really this Medea and all its all-white bio-lab of human dissection, needs some element of visible fury and desecration.

Instead, characters who die are shown standing covered in red dye, or nestled together with eyes closed. The final image of death we see projected on to the screen, animated by Elsbeth’s even-toned reporting of what happened, is a beautiful one, not one of unimaginable horror.

Byrne and Cannavale make the loss and terrible vista tangible and unbearable, but shorn of overt horror it also leaves this highly stylized production feeling remote from its passionate source and real horror. Instead, the final blooming of Anna’s rage is turned inward—a strange though memorable ending of anti-fireworks set against the preceding fireworks.


The Confession of Lily Dare

One of the many wonderful things about The Confession of Lily Dare (a Primary Stages production, at Cherry Lane Theatre to March 5) is that you can simply enjoy Charles Busch’s play as an extremely loving pastiche of its inspirations—1930’s melodramas like The Sin of Madelon Claudet, Frisco Jenny, and Madame X.

Lily Dare, like its antecedents, is a knowing satire of heated potboilers that include passion, betrayal, a child, a child being given up, endless sacrifice, and tragedy. As a writer and performer, Busch has long reveled in re-interpreting such material in his work.

But, as Lily, Busch is doing else beyond mere very entertaining drag. Yes, she is the plain Jane foundling sent to live in a bordello, who grows up to be a cabaret chanteuse (here, the hair gets bigger and stiffens), is done wrong, and forced to give up her child, and who opens her own bordello (the hair gets even higher) and who eventually faces death with that child never knowing her.

At moments Busch also makes us sympathize with Lily, rather than just encouraging us to laugh at her Germanically-clipped words, stagey double-takes, and frowsy, big-haired glamour. And just wait for the character’s moment as a high-living cabaret chanteuse.

Busch is also joined by Christopher Borg, Nancy Anderson, Howard McGillin, Kendal Sparks, and the outstanding Jennifer Van Dyck—all hamming up heroic and villainous stereotypes and subverting them to hilarious hell in wonderful costumes by Jessica Jahn and Rachel Townsend.

Carl Andress directs Busch’s loopy plotting with the chaotic charm as the material demands. B.T. Whitehill’s design is all the faded old-movie glamor you would wish for on one tiny set (which even gives us an earthquake). Go hear Lily’s confession. You will laugh a lot, and you may be most surprised to find yourself moved.