REVIEW: The Guthrie's final Christopher Hampton play, based on a 1942 novel, concerns the recollection of a decades-old event.
I wanted to offer Henrik, the protagonist in "Embers," some contemporary advice: Get over it.
Forty-one years ago, he and his friend, Konrad, went on a hunting trip. Henrik (James A. Stephens) believes that Konrad (Nathaniel Fuller) aimed a gun at him at that time (without pulling the trigger). Konrad left shortly thereafter, on the same day that Henrik's wife, whom he suspects of having an affair, also left. Hmmm.
"Embers" is the final installment in a three-play festival of Christopher Hampton's works at the Guthrie Theater. The two-act is adapted from Austro-Hungarian writer Sandor Marai's recently re-discovered 1942 novel.
"Embers," directed by Joe Dowling in the studio theater, has three characters (Henrik's childhood wet nurse and longtime servant, Nini, is played by Barbara Bryne). But it is only about one bitter man, Henrik, and he talks at Konrad, who sits, mostly mute, as Henrik delivers reams of accusatory dialogue. The play is like a cartoon depiction of the first Obama-Romney presidential debate, with Konrad being seen as an empty chair.
The production underscores the playwright's interest in highly literary works. His "Tales From Hollywood," which is playing on the thrust stage, is about World War II-era German émigrés coping in America. "Appomattox," in the proscenium, yokes together two wrenching periods of American history to show that things did not progress much from the Civil War through the civil rights era.
Ostensibly, "Embers" is about friendship and betrayal. But it really is about the perceptions that can fill the space and harden over time between two people.
Director Dowling has staged a good-looking, in-the-round production in Michael Hoover's stately set, warmly lit by Frank Butler.
Actor Stephens gives Henrik an arch, British air. He huffs and paces a lot before his guest arrives. He pours drinks at the unhappy reunion. Stephens does mighty work in this two-act as he wrestles with dialogue that sounds great on the page but is not that dramatic.
On opening night, Stephens slipped up a couple of times but who can blame him. He has so much of the dialogue and no interaction that he can use as cues. Like parts of "Hollywood," "Embers" feels like a novel being enacted onstage. It does not take advantage of the unique opportunities that a three-dimensional space has to offer.
Fuller invests Konrad with some droll, morose humor. He makes this supporting character empathetic. Still, it is not enough for "Embers," a show that barely flickers to theatrical life.
Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390