For a long time, New York theatergoers were in suspense over what the London production of Jean Cocteau's "Les Parents Terribles" would be called when it reached us.
Obviously, the French title was too difficult for us to understand. So, after much cogitation, the producers came up with "Indiscretions," a surprisingly lofty title for so disgusting a production.
If it's not too late, I suggest they call it "Goofs" - all of whose meanings apply.
At its most basic, "Goofs" means blunders, which fits both the plot and the crude acting style. Goof also implies "hip," in the Beavis and Butt-head sense, which also fits the way Sean Mathias has directed Cocteau's 1938 play.
"Goofs" is about a mother who has an incestuous infatuation with her 23-year-old son. The boy's philandering father is having an affair with the young woman his son wants to marry. In addition, the mother's sister, who had been and may still be in love with the father, lives with them. In the central scene, the boy takes his parents to meet his intended. While he leads his mother and aunt on a tour of her upstairs studio, the father, unwilling to relinquish his lover, forces her to lie, which unravels this overly tangled knot of relationships.
At one point, the father declares that even if these events were taking place in a farce, they would seem outlandish. This suggests the playwright did not think his play was a farce. (If it were played subtly, it might be quite sinister and unsettling.) But in Mathias' hands, it is played precisely as farce. His most distasteful directorial touch is having the father, when he is forcing the young woman to lie, pin her to the ground and reach under her dress to her crotch, a gesture deeply contemptuous of women.
Of the actors, only Eileen Atkins, as the aunt, comes away with dignity. As the mother, Kathleen Turner's stringy hair recalls Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion. In one scene, she's dressed as if the play were high camp and acts accordingly. Cynthia Nixon is shrill as the fiance. Jude Law plays the son as if he were always "wired." As the suave Parisian father, Roger Rees conveys English provincial goofiness.
Farce is a tragedy that happens to somebody else.
That simple truth can rarely have been so mercilessly exposed with such cold malicious good humor as in Jean Cocteau's delicious jet-black comedy "Indiscretions," which opened last night in a sumptuous production by Sean Matthias at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, with the formidable Kathleen Turner as its star box-office attraction.
I say Cocteau's "Indiscretions," although Cocteau himself up in playwright heaven could scarcely have been expected to recognize his American producers' translation into basic English of the title of his celebrated play "Les Parents Terribles."
Fortunately, the translation of the play itself is left in the infinitely more capable hands of Jeremy Sams, who has emerged with a tiny, precious Anglo-French masterpiece.
This story of a mother's Jocasta-like obsession with her Oedipally-oriented son is a psychiatrist's dream and a patient's nightmare. This relationship merely provides the hub for a family that could offer a new currency to that weary coinage, dysfunctional.
Set in middle-class Paris sometime in the late '40s (the designer, presumably for Dior "new-look" reasons of dress, has moved the play, premiered in 1938, up a decade), it has something of the hallucinatory air of a drugged, image-laden vision. It does not really come as a surprise to learn that Cocteau knocked out the play's first draft in eight opium-soaked days.
The infernal machine guiding the plot is as beguiling as those cheerily improbable mechanisms you find in a French farce. Except for the ending...except for the ending....
Yvonne (Turner), fat, blowsy and downed by a mixture of diabetes, inertia and hypochondria, keeps to her bed, her insulin and her besotment with her immature, puppyish 22-year-old son, Michael (Jude Law). Her semi-detached husband, George (Roger Rees), busies himself with useless inventions (at the moment he's working on an underwater sub-machine gun), and the whole gypsy-style household is only given a little order by the presence of Yvonne's sister Leo (Eileen Atkins), a formidable spinster, once herself betrothed to George and still at least half in love with him.
Now Michael goes off and falls in love with a young girl Madeleine (Cynthia Nixon), who he intends to marry after she has broken off an earlier affair she was having with an older man. And the older man is - of course - George. A perfect Feydeau setup. Cocteau wrote the leading role of Michael for his lover at the time, Jean Marais (who can still be seen in it in Cocteau's 1949 movie version), and Michael's over-heated relationship with his mother is said to echo that between both Marais and Cocteau with their respective parents terribles.
Certainly "Les Parents Terribles" (or whatever you want to call it), once banned in Paris, has all the savage indentations of an artist's personal documentation of evidence.
This incredible play (the family code word is "UN-believable" and its tone of shocked delight suits the work to a shiver) is wonderfully funny and horribly terrible and Mathias' original production - together with Sams' vivid translation - proved an enormous success with Britain's Royal National Theater last season.
In large part this is a reproduction of that original staging. It retains the wondrous Stephen Brimson Lewis setting, with its "UN-believeable" precipitous spiral staricase in the second scene, and its subtle suggestions of black-and-white movies, together with the softly supportive music by Jason Carr. These two compete with the designs of Christian Berard and the score by Georges Auric in the film - and win!
Yet Mathias seems to have re-thought the production to some extent. It now seems darker. The ending is clearer, and the acting is given a sharper subtext of nastiness and corruption. Mathias appears more confidently shocked, and makes Cocteau more daringly shocking.
An almost jaunty Rees appears younger and meaner than did Alan Howard's rumpled George at the National, although Atkins' acidulated common sense and Turner's despairing grand dame mannerisms are more in line with their London predecessors.
All of them are excellent, as is Nixon as the slightly knowing young woman at the apex of the father/son triangle. The crisply starched Atkins, whose voice could sour even non-fat cream, has perhaps the best of it, although Turner's fading monstrosity is most beautifully done.
But the star-turn belongs to the Marais-part of Michael, and Jude Law, the one actor repeating his London role, sparking like a Catherine wheel, but also showing an impetuous depth of feeling, while walking some high-wire, balancing manic elation with hysteric grief.
It's a tour de force. So is the play, and so - even more - is the staging. It is all wonderfully perfect, perfectly wonderful, and to be missed at your peril.
Don't be put off. The only feeble thing about the otherwise vigorous production that opened last night at the Barrymore Theater is its vaguely camp, 1930-ish title. "Indiscretions" is still "Les Parents Terribles," Jean Cocteau's remarkable, brilliantly bent boulevard comedy, revived with breathtaking panache by one of England's most audacious new directors, Sean Mathias.
The local producers have stripped "Les Parents Terribles" of its rightful name (fearful that the American public would misread it), but not of its power to shock, delight, disorient and amuse.
The Barrymore production is virtually a replica of the one Mr. Mathias staged last year at the Royal National Theater in London, though four of the five cast members are new: Kathleen Turner, Eileen Atkins, Roger Rees and Cynthia Nixon. Jude Law is the one holdover from the National. They work together with the elemental force of a tornado and something approximating the mean mischief of out-of-control children at play.
In the introduction to the Jeremy Sams translation used by Mr. Mathias, Simon Callow calls Cocteau (1889-1965) "the driven dilettante, the industrious butterfly." In addition to being a playwright, he was a poet, artist, novelist, scenic designer and film maker, excelling in each pursuit and furiously castigated by the critics for his success.
It's easy to believe that he wrote "Les Parents Terribles" during an eight-day opium binge. This is not a play that was worried into existence, developed over time, composed of bits and pieces from notebooks or whipped into shape out of town. It has the eerie seamlessness, the tight construction and the density of a work composed in one spontaneous rush of the imagination. And what a work it is. Taking the conventions and cliches of middle-class boulevard comedy (infidelity, adultery, mistaken identity), Cocteau created an alternately hilarious and ferocious farce about what he called "the Rolls-Royce of families, uncomfortable and ruinous." They are that and more.
The Playbill identifies the time as "sometime in the 1940's," but don't believe it. The time, which is woven into virtually every line of the play, is 1938, when it was written. The setting is a prewar Paris rambunctiously self-absorbed and unaware of the coming deluge. Though the members of this family are eccentric and live in epic visible squalor, they are bourgeois to the core, inhabiting a big, handsome apartment in a placidly bourgeois arrondissement. Their income is modest and fixed, a legacy from a long-dead uncle.
They include Yvonne (Ms. Turner), a self-dramatizing diabetic and slob, who spends most of her time in or on her bed, sometimes cuddling a teddy bear. She is sustained only by her obsessive love for Michael (Mr. Law), her pretty, alarmingly innocent son who, though 22 years old, is emotionally no more than 11. The complacent husband and father is George (Mr. Rees), an inventor still perfecting his underwater machine gun in the broom closet he uses as a laboratory. Their benign keeper is Yvonne's older sister Leonie (Ms. Atkins), called Leo, chic, wise and serenely sane.
It's not easy for Leo. She still loves George, to whom she was engaged before he fell in love with and married Yvonne. Rather than lose him completely, she has remained a member of the household. She's the family confidante, effective parent to them all, and controller of the exchequer. In her own unknowing way, she's also responsible, at least in part, for the situation that ultimately shatters the family:
Michael comes home one morning to announce that he has fallen in love, news that only Leo greets with any satisfaction. Yvonne erupts with the volcanic fury of a spurned fishwife. George reacts with dismay.
He realizes that Madeleine (Ms. Nixon), the bookbinder his son adores, is the young woman he has been keeping with money borrowed from Leo, which Madeleine, in turn, has been passing on to Michael. Says George, after confessing all to Leo, "How can it happen in a city of this size?" For the rest of the three acts, Yvonne and George, with Leo's cooperation initially, scheme to separate the lovers.
That's the situation, The play is something else. It's a lethal if often hilarious farce about the darkest neuroses of familiar comic characters. These people, as Leo says, are children who sometimes commit terrible crimes.
In hindsight, the play is also a spookily revealing artifact from a society grown soft and corrupt, a class too self-involved to see over its piles of personal debris and beyond its elegantly shuttered windows. This is France, or at least a small part of it, in the year of Munich and just two years before the surrender to the Nazis. It was the beginning of one of the dreariest chapters in French history, when, among other things, Frenchmen willingly assisted the Germans in rounding up other Frenchmen and sending them off to the camps.
Cocteau was not gifted with foresight. Nor was he political except in the way he promoted himself. Yet he so accurately and wittily describes the times, and a certain kind of hermetic logic and emotional stinginess, that "Les Parents Terribles" takes on a prescience that chills.
It's not necessary to freight "Indiscretions" with such associations, but Mr. Mathias's production and the Cocteau text are strong enough to carry them.
Ms. Atkins is superb as the all-seeing Leo. Her voice is as supple and sinuous as her figure. Her line readings are priceless as Leo uncovers the bitter truth of the outrageous situation she means to set right. Ms. Turner is not quite in the Atkins league, but she has something of a triumph here. She harbors her skills. When she opens up and lets fly with that sexy, near-baritone delivery, she threatens the stability of the house like no one since Tallulah Bankhead. In fact, she's a better comedienne than Bankhead, as well as an actress of guts and daring.
Equally good are Mr. Rees as the befogged dad and Mr. Law as the son, the role that Cocteau wrote for his lover, Jean Marais. If anything, Mr. Law is even better than he was in the London production. The role only makes sense if you accept the Cocteau universe, in which the possibility of ideal innocence exists. Somehow Mr. Law portrays this innocence without looking like an idiot. In the pivotal role of the equally innocent Madeleine, Ms. Nixon is lovely until the play's big moments, when her voice becomes harsh.
Stephen Brimson Lewis's two sets are as spectacular as anything you've seen on Broadway recently: Yvonne's grandly disordered bedroom, bathed in perpetual twilight, dominated by an armoire that looks like a giant beast with a mouthful of discarded clothes, and Madeleine's clean, airy, sunlit studio, which offers Michael everything he can't find at home.
Mr. Mathias's staging here seems somewhat more broad than it was in London. There's just a little too much horseplay, too much jumping around on Yvonne's bed, not only by Yvonne and Michael, the man she loves best, but also by George.
Another problem: Mr. Mathias's way of framing the play, which doesn't work especially well at the Barrymore. When the curtain goes up, we are supposed to be seeing a film: the light flickers behind a scrim, there's the equivalent of theme music, and the first speeches and sound effects are heard -- as if on an old soundtrack-- from speakers at both sides of the stage. Cocteau's own very fine film version was made in 1948 and is technically superb, not the early talkie this seems to call to mind.
Broadway audiences, now used to terrible sound amplification, are likely to misunderstand this attempt to distance the play from ordinary reality.
These are small reservations. Call it what you will -- "Indiscretions" or "Les Parents Terribles" -- this is a bewitching theatrical experience.
One quick response to "Indiscretions"-- the very bad title given Jean Cocteau's 1938 play "Les Parents Terribles"-- would be to chalk it up as the latest show-offy import by a hot National Theater director-designer team mining a lost work from the wartime era and putting its own stamp on it. That was the case with last year's remarkable revival of J.B. Priestley's 1945 "An Inspector Calls," a play with which "Indiscretions" has nothing in common except for having been exhumed, grabbed by the throat and shaken until anything and everything inside falls out.
What a wild ride these shows take an audience on. "An Inspector Calls" has been an unexpected (and rare) dramatic hit on Broadway, and if audiences can get beyond a central casting error, "Indiscretions" should follow suit.
It's a disturbing romp that will need a big assist from the critics and long-term word-of-mouth from the patrons if it's to have any chance of recouping a tab that was fast approaching the $2 million mark by opening night.
While there are many indiscretions in "Indiscretions," the title is more suggestive of a West End sex farce than the libidinal horror show unfolding at the Barrymore.
Then again, even "Les Parents Terribles" falls short of preparing one for a fever dream of a play that offers both a mother's sexual obsession with her son, and a father and son sleeping with the same lover -- a point, the father claims when the situation is revealed to him, that would be dismissed as far-fetched "in the silliest boulevard farce."
Well, farce is the least of what Cocteau had in mind. A crazy quilt of Freudian fantasy, over-the-top melodrama and black comedy, "Indiscretions" veers giddily from one extreme to another: A constant disorientation is a big part of its thrill. If only Kathleen Turner weren't giving a performance of surpassing awfulness, "Indiscretions" would almost certainly qualify as the season's most astonishing production.
Turner probably seemed a good choice for Yvonne, a Parisian cousin of the seething Maggie the Cat she played in a 1990 Broadway revival of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."
Yvonne lost interest in her husband, George (Roger Rees), the day her son, Michael (Jude Law), was born. She carried him to his bed every night until he was 11 years old, and even now that he's in his early 20s, she can't restrain herself from drawing a hand longingly across his chest or pulling him to her bed for some charged kissing and tickles.
Her bedroom, in an Art Nouveau townhouse, looks exactly like the "gypsy camp" her family calls it, especially in Stephen Brimson Lewis' dreamy, voluptuous setting: nearly all gray, set off by the creamy silk undergarments spilling out of an armoire and sprouting like honeysuckle from every aperture.
With her hair a wild tangle and her shoulders barely wrapped in a silk shawl, Turner's languor is palpable as she slips into the john to administer an insulin shot before passing out in the play's opening scene, a nightmarish reprise of which will bring the story to a close.
But she speaks as if chewing marshmallows, and for all her delicious deshabillage, Turner can never do better than roughly indi-cate Yvonne's gypsy soul. That's not nearly good enough when her imperious sister, Leo (for Leonie), is played with breathtaking wit by Eileen Atkins; her begoggled, failed inventor of a husband, George, is played with unnerving intensity by Rees; and her flighty, besotted son, Michael, is played by the irrepressible Law.
Rees and Atkins are nothing short of spellbinding as a husband whose twittiness barely masks a sinister egotism, and the spinster who continues to love him even after her willful sister stole -- and then virtually abandoned -- him. (For Atkins, who just concluded an Off Broadway run opposite Vanessa Redgrave in "Vita and Virginia," it's the second grand display of the season.)
At the end of the first act, when George confides to Leo his discovery that he and Michael are sleeping with the same woman, his eyes are wild and full of comic-book dementia. "How can it happen," he says, in a whine that escalates into a howl, "in a city this size?"
The second act begins with the first of the show's theatrical coups: What George calls the "stygian gloom" of Yvonne's boudoir has been replaced by its opposite, a minimalist attic studio, wide open and light, dominated by a vertiginous spiral stairway. Madeleine (Cynthia Nixon, miscast for perhaps the first time in an exceptional career), descends those steps from the flies to greet Michael as he emerges from a bath.
It's a giddy, sexy scene: Law the yipping wet puppy, Nixon the mistress grooming him before the arrival of Yvonne, Leo and George. The scene begins as frothy as bath suds; one memorable tableau has four of the five characters perched at different angles on the stair.
But it turns sinister when a plan to keep Michael in the dark goes awry and George finds himself unwilling to give up Madeleine. She tries to shut him up with kisses and he responds with a savage form of rape, leaving her a crumpled wreck on the floor.
Although her original intention was malicious, Leo saves the day by taking charge. "I'm a paradox," she admits to Madeleine. Back in Yvonne's bedroom, Atkins stands, cigarette holder in hand, one hip thrust out, the opposite knee turned in, her elegant silhouette hugged by an equally elegant black dress. It's Leo's most comfortable pose, the picture of order among the chaos.
When she tells George to let go of Madeleine and allow his son to find adult happiness, George expresses amazement -- or is it amusement? -- Leo has a big heart.
"Big or small, my heart never gets used," she replies, unexpectedly adding, "It's nice to use it." Again the tone shifts from comic to serious as the terrible parents -- selfish children, really, in all but chronology -- give in to unruly and ultimately malevolent urges.
Jeremy Sams' translation captures the era perfectly, as do the noirish insinuations of Jason Carr's saxophone music. Director Sean Mathias navigates the play's quick changes with exceptional confidence. Lewis' costumes are as stunning as his set, and Mark Henderson's lighting -- fading twilight in Yvonne's room, no-place-to-hide bright in Madeleine's -- contribute to the mood.
The first minutes of "Indiscretions" are played in a flickering light, the voices amplified, emulating Cocteau's 1948 film of "Les Parents Terribles."
But it ends with a heavy-handed bit of '90s gimmickry, as the walls of Yvonne's room pull apart, exposing the backstage, much as these lives have been pulled apart and exposed (and much like the final moments of "An Inspector Calls ," the more overtly political play). It's superfluous, an exclamation point on a play that has already broken all the rules.