Circle Mirror Transformation

Good news: The superb Circle Mirror Transformation will return for one month to Playwrights Horizons. Beginning December 15, this gem of a play will once again take over the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre, Playwrights Horizons’ smaller stage. This is a must see.

The conceit of the show is that you’re watching an acting class. Don’t pay attention to that, though, because Circle Mirror Transformation is really a beautifully written, skillfully directed and wonderfully acted character study. We never leave the classroom and yet we get such a full picture of who these Vermonters are. Each week, layers are peeled off and character traits – both endearing pieces of back story and flaws – are revealed. We are taken on a journey of discovery with the acting teacher and her four (mostly adult) students. If you’ve ever taken an acting class you’ll delight in the details of the set and the theatre games played. If you haven’t, don’t worry. There is plenty else to delight in, not the least of which are the wonderful performances, particularly Reed Birney’s.

Mr. Birney is well known to the New York theatre crowd, receiving rave reviews for his performances in last season’s Blasted and The Savannah Disputation (the latter being the play in which I first saw him.) He is instantly likable but unafraid to show vulnerability. The rest of the cast are also very good. Tracee Chimo (as the lone teenager in a group of adults) does wonders with her expressions – even just a perfectly timed eyebrow raise garners tons of laughs – and as the acting teacher, Deirde O’Connell displays compassion, patience and more than a little grace under fire.

One of the other elements of this production that I loved was the pacing and the director’s respect for the audience. In our ADD-addled culture, commercials, movies and television (and now lots of theatre, too) feel the need to constantly shift our focus in an attempt to not lose it. This makes me dizzy. Sometimes it has its place – like in American Idiot when the constant flitting from clip to clip is making a statement about our culture. But most of the time it’s just a device to distract from the poor quality of the content. Circle Mirror Transformation, on the other hand, takes its time; it lets the characters develop. The play starts, in fact, with all the actors lying on the ground, motionless and speechless for maybe a full minute before one of them says a number, then more silence until someone else does. We learn that this is an acting exercise and as the show progresses this exercise is used as a gauge of how much the “students” have evolved. I like that director Sam Gold thought enough of his audience to know they could handle silence on stage. It’s rare to seemingly have nothing going on on stage but in the case of Circle Mirror Transformation, if you just let yourself go on the journey, you’ll soon discover that a whole lot is being said in those silences and pauses.

Circle Mirror Transformation originally ran at Playwrights Horizons earlier this fall, playing, as most subscription based houses’ plays do, a limited run. (I had the pleasure of seeing it in its second preview performance and I attended a post-show talkback with PH’s artistic director, the playwright and the director. This only made me like the play even more!) After extending its run twice (and selling out both extensions) Circle Mirror Transformation finally closed on November 21. According to Playbill, the set was never struck and nothing else was booked in that space so theatergoers now have the chance to see this great new play by young playwrighting sensation Annie Baker. This limited return engagement is scheduled to play only until January 17, 2010, so head over to 42nd Street and see this terrific original play while you can.