An apologia, writer and rabble-rouser Kristin Miller (Stockard Channing) explains early on in Alexi Kaye Campbell’s play, is “a formal, written defense of one’s opinions or conduct.” It is not, she decisively clarifies, “to be confused with an apology.”
The provocative American-transplanted-to-the-English-countryside Kristin—we might as well just call her Stockard, as Apologia is very much The Stockard Channing Show (and the producers should be mighty glad about that)—has written a memoir titled Apologia. (Pronounced /apəˈlōj(ē)ə)/, which translates more or less to apollo-GEE-a). The book is a defense of the character’s life choices. Not an apology, as she is quite clear that she has nothing to for which to apologize.
The play centers around Stockard’s relationship with her two fortyish sons, still upset that she abandoned them in Florence when they were grade-schoolers and she was doing ground-breaking research on Giotto. They seem even more tortured, just now, because they are not only neglected in their mother’s biographical tome; they aren’t even mentioned.
Apologia the book is Stockard’s defense of her life, and it is clear that the lady doth protest too much. But one gets the impression that the playwright doth, in building his play, protest too much, too. Which is to say, he seems so intent on creating a monster mother that there is no glimmer of an alternate view of the question. By making her so unquestionably non-maternal—and stoking the play with gibes at her and outlandish behavior from her—all we can do is sit back and enjoy Stockard’s monstrous machinations.
The purpose for the stage gathering is momma’s birthday party. One wonders why the long-abandoned boys (and their female partners) even show up for such an occasion; certainly one birthday with mom, from the looks of this one, is more than enough for a lifetime. Stockard doesn’t play nicely, to say the least, and one can’t imagine many happy returns. But of course, Stockard the actress is razor-sharp and immensely entertaining. We’ve seen this before: Let her plant her teeth in a juicy role, and she is likely to wipe away any complaints about dramatic flaws.
She is ably supported by a cast of five, led by the excellent Hugh Dancy as Stockard’s two sons. The elder, Peter, is altogether charming; the younger, Simon, is altogether tortured. Once Simon makes a most effective entrance as the hook upon which to drop the first act curtain, we realize that both brothers will play an important part in the evening—and that we shall never see Peter and Simon at the same time. (Don’t look to me for Christian iconography, plenty of which is packed into the play, but the man who became Saint Peter was a fisherman formerly known as Simon Peter.)
Megalyn Echikinwoke, from the series House of Lies and the upcoming film Late Night, plays the glamorous daughter-in-law, a soap opera star who wears an expensive designer dress (and yes, the playwright gets plenty of mileage out of this). The other, soon-to-be daughter-in-law—a very Christian pescatarian from Nebraska—is played by Talene Monahon, who was the delicious ingenue in the Red Bull Theater’s recent Government Inspector. Rounding out the cast is, of all people, John Tillinger.
Tillinger has been busily directing plays by Orton, Ayckbourn, Miller, and more, on Broadway and off since the early 1980s. He did begin his American career—having been raised in England and born in Iraq—as an actor. He briefly returned to the stage in the Roundabout’s 1985 revival of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, in which Channing first established herself as a dramatic actress and won a well-deserved Tony Award. Now he has once again rejoined Stockard, playing the heroine’s flamboyantly acerbic old pal from the protest days. Tillinger, in full George Rose mode, is massively funny as he smooths over many of the play’s rough edges. This character—built on stereotype—might be objectionable to some current-day viewers, but blame the script.
One wonders, in fact, whether the script might have played considerably better when it was first performed at the Bush Theatre in 2009. It might well be that the play, given the societal upheaval in the interim, now seems outmoded. Campbell’s first major play, The Pride, opened in 2008 and has been produced worldwide (including a New York production from MCC, featuring Dancy). Based on director Jamie Lloyd’s dazzling 2013 revival London revival of The Pride at Trafalgar Studios, that play seems to remain highly relevant. More recently, Campbell wrote the screenplay for Woman in Gold, which starred Helen Mirren.
Channing had a grand success in a 2017 London revival of Apologia, also at Trafalgar Studios. (This was from an altogether different creative team, led by director Lloyd, as well as a different cast—although the Roundabout gives Trafalgar above-the-title credit.) She is equally successful here, and makes Apologia well worth a visit. In this viewing, though, the play is not nearly up to the star.
Apologia opened October 16, 2018, at the Laura Pels Theatre and runs through December 16. Tickets and information: roundabouttheatre.org