Talk about talking heads! Tom Conti's is simply devastating. And thanks to it and Brian Kelly's surgically clean prose strokes, "Whose Life Is It Anyway?," which arrived at the Trafalgar last evening, is something to cheer about.
Cheer about? This is a play about a hospital patient paralyzed from the neck down: a witty and intelligent man, a sculptor rapt in his work and the sorcery of women; a man unlucky enough to have survived a terrible car accident and, now, after six months of mending, to be left with a talking, mobile head and that's all. And now all he wants from life, wants desperately, is the right to die.
Cheers? Of course. They're always reserved for the valiant and never boring ones who fight to win against all odds, whether it's a heavily-armed enemy outpost in the field or equally strong, well-intentioned opposition within hospital walls.
For two hours, broken by an intermission, we regard Ken Harrison's (Conti's) bright, articulate, entertaining head as it lolls, wags, winks, grimaces and does all the many thing heads can do while it rests above a severed spinal cord and jokes outrageously, though in truth ashamedly, with nurses and others in a provincial Catholic hospital, all the while setting his carefully thought out plan in motion and pursuing it to its finish.
Clark's script, which began its own life as a television play, is spare and incisive. Well, mostly spare. Now and again, bits of tangential byplay - a budding romance between a nurse in training and an orderly, and another between Harrison's solicitor and the female doctor in charge of his case, to cite two main examples - are introduced, and while they seem to be shrewd conveniences, they are also entirely germane and dramatically necessary breathing spaces for a glued spectator.
Conti, making his American stage debut in a work in which he triumphed in London, has a personality so winning that the audience seemed more than anxious to grant him his every wish, including death. More important, he has all the skills to go with it, including great range. Jean Marsh is fine as the cool and lovely therapist whose interest in his case becomes perhaps too absorbing. There are other excellent performances by Philip Bosco, as the hospital's chief consultant and head of intensive care, a man who sees his duty as saving life, no matter how limited its scope; by Kenneth Welsh as Emerson's young and firm-minded solicitor; by Beverly May, as the wing's efficient Sister in charge; and, by, in fact, everyone in a surprisingly sizable cast.
Michael Lindsay-Hogg has repeated his original precise and excellently-paced direction in Harrison's room and in the corridors and offices that fan out from this throbbing nerve center with Harrison's restless (except when drugged against his will) and pained eyes. Alan Tagg's scene design has also been preserved - a skeletal set with desks, chairs, bed, solid swinging doors at the rear and sides and imaginary corridors that the actors carefully thread in going from one room to another. Pearl Somner's costumes and Tharon Musser's lighting are enhancing factors.
A stunning evening, all around. And once this fellow Conti learns to walk (actually, he does take a curtain call, for actors will stop at nothing), no stage will be safe from his magnetic presence.
What rights do you have over your life? No - start again. What control do you have over your life? Or death? This is the argument of Brian Clark's enthralling play, Whose Life Is It Anyway?, which opened last night at the new Trafalgar Theater.
Let us get the theater over with first, for this is the old Billy Rose Theater on West 41st Street, vacant for some years but now handsomely redecorated and renamed.
And luckily it has a play worthy of its reopening and a performance, by the British actor Tom Conti, previously only known here on TV, that is a total knockout. It is also a very wise and very funny play about death.
Conti plays a quadraplegic - a man in a hospital bed totally paralyzed from the neck down. He is incapable of any movement, a man reduced to simply a living head. A former sculptor before the car accident that destroyed every part of him except his brain, he lies there both a tribute to medical science and its prisoner.
The man wants to choose death rather than this quarter-life so full of frustrated intelligence and thwarted desire. He decides, in his own words, "not to go on living with so much effort for so litle result." Or, as he says later: "If I can't be a man I have no wish to be a medical achievement."
He is powerless. His doctor, a good and humane man, can jab a tranquilizing needle in his arm, and he can only shout in protest and bang his head against his pillow.
However he finds a lawyer, and convinces him that he has a right to freedom and, of course, death. Once removed from the life-sustaining apparatus of the hospital he will die in a few days. The lawyer institutes a "Habeas Corpus" suit, which if successful will force the hospital to release their patient from what he regards as "imprisonment."
That's it. The story is predictable in its outcome from the beginning. The man has to win his case - which is heard by a learned judge at his bedside - or there could be no play. But this doesn't matter. What is important here is the dazzling irony and literacy of the writing, and the forceful arguments pro and con on the proposition.
The production comes from London, and Michael Lindsay-Hogg is repeating his taut yet idiomatic direction from the original. Only Conti remains from the London cast, but this is enough. He is one of the most gifted actors to emerge in the last decade - everything I have seen him do is touched with quicksilver. Here, playing the role with no self-pity, he will force you to giggle and challenge you to cry.
The rest of the cast, all American or fellow-travellers, is exquisite. Jean Marsh as a caring sympathetic doctor, Philip Bosco as her boss, honest and secure in his Hippocratic duties, and Kenneth Welsh, as the tousled pugnacious lawyer are particularly resonant as people caught in this new and very different doctor's dilemma. This is a good, thoughtful and sometimes outrageous play well worth your attention.
"Whose Life Is It Anyway?" is a battle of ideas and a battle for life. It is a rare success ful effort to fuse a tense and provocative argument, carried on in unashamed vigor and prolixity, with a play that lives and moves.
It arrives at the Trafalgar Theater - formerly the Billy Rose and newly reopened - from its success in London. The production that opened last night uses the same director, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, and the same principal actor, Tom Conti. The rest of the cast was recruited here.
Mr. Conti, of which more later, is so extraordinarily good as the valiant, desperately talking head attached to a paralyzed body, that it is tempting to think of the evening as an acting tour de force. But I have seen another production of the play, at the Folger Theater in Washington, which aroused the same feelings of brilliance. If there is a tour de force here - and there is, and in the best sense of the word - it is the play.
The hopelessly paralyzed protagonist, a sculptor whose spinal cord was severed in a car accident, conducts a solitary rebellion against the doctors who keep him alive but can offer him no prospect of recovery. He demands to be released from the hospital. The hospital authorities refuse because once released, he is certain to die. He insists on his right to die, hires a lawyer and brings in a judge.
The questions raised by the playwright, Brian Clark, are complex and fascinating. Is life a right or a duty? Do experts - in this case the doctors - have the right to usurp our decisions for what they consider our own good?
Mr. Clark clearly is on the side of freedom but he has set the terms of the argument in an agonizing balance. Emerson, the chief doctor, may disregard his patient's insistence on his human dignity but he is, after all, trying to save his life. Ken Harrison, the patient, makes an appeal for freedom that is irresistible, but his victory means his death. It is a battle between two opposed concepts of the good.
But this alone would make a theme, not a play. "Whose Life" never gets far from its argument. It is a work of unfashionable intellectual tenacity and once or twice, perhaps, it has the defect of rounding out its points a bit too completely. But it has a great deal more than that.
It is almost indecently witty, yet its wit is the plunging, sparkling release of its seriousness. Its characters serve as types and embody the arguments, yet virtually all of them have a rebellious individuality of their own. There is no one - the autocratic doctor, the starchy head nurse, the timid novice nurse, the hospital psychiatrist, who does not manage to wear their assigned roles with a difference.
And beneath the humor and the wit, beneath the liveliness and fascination of the arguments, there is a slow, powerful dramatic tide coming in. Mr. Clark has implanted a tragic irony at the heart of his play. Ken Harrison wins his fight - that old ass, the Law, has routed those new asses, the experts - but those he has won over with his lucid, funny and valiant fight for his dignity smile proudly at him and leave. He is a dying man and his dignity is appallingly lonely.
Mr. Conti is a long, pale face. All the energy of an actor's body - his is soft and white in the glimpses we get of it and sunk into the bed as a boulder settles in soft ground - has gone into that face. He glowers and smirks as he teases the nurses, joking about his condition. The jokes are funny and appalling, but they are not made for their own sake.
Mr. Conti plays a man who clowns and jokes as a blind man pokes around with his stick to establish the dimensions, and in this case the terrors, of the place he finds himself in. The head moves continually: deprived of all other sensation Mr. Conti's character grimaces, rocks back against the pillow, blows his hair our of his eyes - all in order to feel something. At one point he asks the nurse for a tissue to blow his nose. When she offers it he grinds his nose savagely against it.
With the young woman doctor who comes to take his side against her superiors, Mr. Conti achieves a portrayal of sexual longing that becomes the most moving symbol of a longing for life. In a moment of tenderness she strokes his face; his head cranes gently one way, then the other and subsides.
Mostly Mr. Conti clowns, reasons and rages. But he gives way once or twice. After holding his own with a psychiatrist whose mission is to certify him as clinically depressed, his chin trembles, his features convulse with sobbing, and then that long head whips about viciously, pursuing the weakness as if it were swatting flies.
There is a lot of other good acting in the production, though some of it lacks strength. Among others Beverly May is very good as the stiff but complex headnurse, Kenneth Welsh is first-rate as the patient's seedy but purposeful lawyer, Peter McRobbie and Edmond Genest are fine as two psychiatrists, and James Higgins makes an impressively thoughtful judge.
Two of the principals, though they perform well, fall somewhat short of their roles. Jean Marsh is graceful and entirely adequate as the sympathetic young doctor, but this is a part that needs more complexity and passion.
Philip Bosco is such a fine actor that he is frequently most effective as Dr. Emerson. But in the first part of the play he fails to suggest the strength and devotion of the character. He is an unctuous, facile professional; he suggests, just a little, the wicked scientist and projects guilt instead of the impressive assurance that the role requires. Emerson must be almost a match for the freedom fighter in the hospital bed.
There are defects, but they barely affect the brilliance of Mr. Clark's play and the monumental performance of Mr. Conti. "Whose Life Is It Anyway" is a blazing light in this season.