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Broadway review of The Year of Magical ThinkingTHE YEAR OF THEATRICAL MYTH-MAKING
Theatre Review
by Harvey Perr
published March 30, 2007
The Year of Magical Thinking
now playing on Broadway at the Booth Theatre
The curtains – Bob Crowley’s elegant watery constructs – do not rise; they come billowing down to mark the sea changes in Joan Didion’s journey from confusion to grief  to a kind of madness to a return to sanity. The gracefully flowing gown, so pristinely monochromatic, which Ann Roth has created for Vanessa Redgrave, who portrays Ms. Didion, suggests both the regal and the earthy. The wooden chair, as plain and unvarnished as poetry itself, on which Ms. Redgrave is perched through most of the evening, becomes her throne, a place from which she can hold court as she weaves her tragic tale of confronting the deaths of her husband and her daughter. Her arms reach out to us in perpetual entreaty, her hands holding onto some invisible thing she cannot let go of. Ms. Redgrave is an actress who can mesmerize us by merely showing us the bracelet on her right wrist. It is good to see that her fingers, slender and supple, are not gnarled with arthritis, as they seemed to be when she played Eugene O’Neill’s Mary Tyrone so unforgettably just a few seasons ago. And when she speaks, in that mellifluous voice that could disarm a savage horde, the language that falls as easily as rain from her heart is the rich and reasoned language that Ms. Didion has artfully distilled from her radically inspiring “The Year of Magical Thinking.” So, here we have one of our greatest actresses breathing theatrical life into a play by one of our greatest writers, under the quiet direction of one of the international theater’s preeminent artists, David Hare. It was designed to be the most tasteful event of the season. We felt it in the ads that preceded the show. We could see it in the Playbill we held in our hands as the lights died down.
So why did I leave the theater so unmoved? How did a book, which aroused such an avalanche of emotional responses from its readers, become such a bloodless, bone-dry play?  First of all, it is important to note that, in reading the book, the voice of the California firebrand who wrote “Play It As It Lays’ and “The White Album,” could be heard sharply and poignantly, the voice of someone who is smart and searching, who has finally found a subject that exists beyond intellectual clarity. There was a horrifying howl of disbelief in the face of absolute truth. She touched upon the very thing that connects Joan Didion to anyone who has known what it feels like to lose those one loves. It was about her husband John Gregory Dunne and her beloved daughter Quintana, yes, but it was also about all our dead spouses, all our dying children. The obsession with minutiae became emblematic of a growing insanity, a pain beneath the pain. When she finally came through to the other side, the sanity she regained was a less orderly sanity than the one she knew before. The memoir was not about that discovery, but rather about the discovering itself.
In the theater, the voice we hear, luminous as Ms. Redgrave is, is the voice of a well-bred, name-dropping upper East Side matron, who has reasoned through her pain before she walked on stage, and wants to share what she has learned with her audience, because she is certain that what she has found out will be of interest to us. Of course, it is of interest to us, but it is only natural that we might feel somewhat patronized if we are, to a degree, being lectured to, rather than being asked to participate in the discovery of her anguish. Ms. Redgrave, one of the few actresses capable of getting her hands dirtied, is not given a chance to do so here – and the result is that we don’t, either.  One admires the artists involved for avoiding sentimentality at all costs, but the final image of the play does not move or haunt us because it makes too much of Ms. Didion’s tragedy and not enough of the heartbreak we all share with Ms. Didion.
The entire evening reeks of refinement. It is far too elegant, too well-bred, too tasteful. It is as if we have been offered a gift. The package comes beautifully wrapped, and when we are asked to carefully open it, we find inside a Special Edition of “The Year of Magical Thinking.” We touch it. We feel it. We turn to the inside. The pages are blank. We must return to our bookshelves and find the dog-eared copies of the book we read and loved and remind ourselves that magic doesn’t come in a package, no matter how beautifully wrapped it may be. A work of art, in this instance, has been transformed into an art piece.  One has life in it; the other just sits there, waiting to be admired. You choose which is preferable.
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