True Stories: Actors' Studio articulates Alan Bennett's Talking Heads

May 23, 2013 at 4:00 am
John Lamb
John Lamb

The deft British playwright Alan Bennett has succeeded in transforming sadness into a kind of cottage industry. Originally, his dozen monologues, which fall under the umbrella title Talking Heads, were cultivated in two crops. The first six appeared on BBC Television in 1988. The remainder was added a decade later. Talking Heads has since been heard on the radio and seen on the stage. The mix-and-match monologues, which are usually performed in batches of three, adopt the Chinese menu approach to theater. The current St. Louis Actors' Studio staging, which was directed by Lana Pepper, presents two monologues from Column A (the original batch in 1988) and one from Column B (1998). Bennett's laissez-faire approach — he doesn't seem to mind which monologues you do, or in which order — suggests that unhappiness does not require structure; it is pervasive.

First we travel to the Mediterranean resort town of Marbella, Spain, to meet the lonely Rosemary. In Hamlet we learn that rosemary is "for remembrance," and that's what Rosemary (Elizabeth Ann Townsend) does. In a monologue titled "Nights in the Gardens of Spain," she recalls the only true friend she had, a neighbor back in England who went to prison after having murdered her louse of a husband. As Rosemary tends to the plants in her garden shed, we sense that the geraniums are but a metaphor. After 30 years of meaningless wedlock to a man she hardly understands, it's Rosemary's marriage that needs weeding. When eventually she tells us, "It's me that's going back to prison," we are reminded that you needn't be behind bars to be incarcerated.

"A Chip in the Sugar" introduces us to Graham Whittaker (Alan Knoll), a middle-aged sad sack who still shares a home with his 78-year-old mother. Graham lives the lie that Mum needs him, when in fact it is he who needs her. When the jealous Graham must fend off his mother's suspicious and unexpected suitor, he comes to understand the meaning behind the phrase "Win the battle but lose the war." Curiously, only two of the twelve Talking Heads monologues were written for men. Bennett wrote this one for himself. Perhaps that's why it trusts the actor and allows for so much space between the lines — space that Knoll poignantly, and seemingly unconsciously, fills with a twitching right hand and a crumbling forehead as Graham's insular world begins to deteriorate.

Then there is Susan (Glynis Bell), the vicar's wife, in "Bed Among the Lentils." Like homebody Rosemary, Susan suffers from a dispiriting marriage. In this instance, despair inside the vicarage leads Susan to engage in socially unacceptable behavior. The cunning Bell delivers every sentence — almost every word — as if it is a razor-sharp high wire that must be ever-so-carefully trod, and no net in the bargain. The precise acuity of her work is impressive.

Bennett is a facile writer who laces his portraits with lots of wicked humor. His plots are buoyed by frequent surprises that catch us off guard. Yet these monologues are better remembered for the dialogue we hear than for the characters we meet. The emphasis here is so slanted to verbal dexterity, if you close your eyes and listen to the words, you'll be nearly as well rewarded as when you watch. (And all the more so because these three set designs are not helpful. Listening allows for more interesting images in your mind's eye than you'll see on the Gaslight Theater stage.)

The only real problem here is one of pace. I gather that in the original London production, there were no intermissions; instead, brief piano interludes punctuated the monologues. Here we have two momentum-killing breaks. They likely enhance beverage sales, but they don't help the show. What's really needed is to get on with it.