“Veronica’s Position” slightly exaggerated
Veronica’s Position is precarious. Rich Orloff’s 1994 opus is part problem play and part farce, couched in a roman à clef. Those elements did not always ride so comfortably together Saturday, as In Tandem Theatre staged the piece. More on that to come, but first, a walk down memory lane:
Orloff set the piece in late 1989 and early 1990, about the time AIDS was spreading and right-wing politicos seized on the idea of beating up on homosexuals to score political points. It seems so long ago, now, but you might recall that a showing of Robert Mapplethorp’s photos scheduled for a Washington museum got a little NEA funding. Some of those photos were gay-themed and naughty, which caused senators to bluster about taxpayer-funded obscenity, etc., and we almost lost the National Endowment for the Arts. Also at about that time, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, in their divorced state, appeared together in a disaster of a play on Broadway. Through this period, Taylor was married to John Warner, a Republican senator from Virginia.
Orloff stirs all that into Veronica’s Position, but of course renames and adjusts the ingredients. Veronica (i.e., Elizabeth Taylor) is not married to but rather being courted by Harvey (i.e., Warner), as she tries to do Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler with Philip (i.e., Richard Burton). Veronica has this gay personal assistant, Alan, whose long-time companion died a year before. By coincidence, Alan is acquainted with Zeke, an a avant-garde photographer (Mapplethorpe). They’re all in D.C., where Hedda Gabler is in rehearsal and pre-Broadway tryouts. And there’s this young hottie of a director, Mallory, the natural prey of the Burton character and the source of re-awakened jealousy in Veronica.
Until those final scenes, the play is slow going, and this staging does it few favors. Jane Flieller directed, and either allowed or encouraged her actors to infuse theatrical extravagance in their characters’ private lives. True, the actors, the politician, the self-regarding director and the flamboyant gay men might be given to offstage theatrics. But these people never give it a rest. Their consistent insistence flattens out the characters.
Richard Ganoung’s Philip is more like the affected, on-screen Clifton Webb than the off-screen Richard Burton, and Tiffany Vance’s Veronica is more Auntie Mame than Elizabeth Taylor. If they’d dropped down to intimacy and simply conversed sometimes and ramped up for effect at others, the show would be more richly textured and the characters more real. But they’re always pouring it on, not conversing so much as delivering lines, speeches and grand gestures. That prevents us from taking Veronica and Philip seriously and dampens the humor. Some of Orloff’s punchlines cry out to be thrown away, and they’re just not as funny hammered home. The actors finally become genuine in the last scenes, which play extremely well because they’re the most physical and least talky. Affectations are harder to maintain when you’re playing a fight or falling-down drunk.
T. Stacy Hicks plays Alan, who in a clever line describes himself as “the sidekick usually played by Thelma Ritter.” Hicks starts as a stereotypical wise-cracking, eye-rolling, long-suffering doormat assistant, but becomes increasingly real as he interacts with Joe Fransee’s Zeke. Fransee made the most of an underwritten part; the courting scene between him and Hicks was the subtlest in the show.
Steve Koehler, as Harvey, has two things to do: Smooch with Veronica and argue arts funding and morality with everyone else. Neither Orloff nor Koehler made Harvey a philistine Snidely Whiplash. He’s a sincere guy who likes art well enough, but genuinely can’t grasp Zeke’s work or, for that matter, life. Koehler, like the rest of the cast, overdid it at first and gradually found a more convincing scale as the evening wore on.
Mallory, the tarty, clueless little director, makes no sense as a character. So it’s hard to blame Libby Amato for having no idea what to do with her other than work harder and harder and get louder and louder. But why wouldn’t she try to be subtle and beguiling now and then? It might not extract better work from her stubborn Hedda Gabbler stars, but it would certainly make Mallory better company for the audience.
In Tandem’s design and production crew understood Veronica’s Position as a period piece and delivered the winter of 1989-1990 precisely. All the action takes place in Veronica’s upscale hotel suite; Steve Barnes made it about mauve-on-mauve striped wallpaper, nice appointments and a carpeted floor on two levels, a perfect playing space. Pam Rehberg’s costumes reminded us that fashion wasn’t so bad back then — if you were Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton or Robert Mapplethorpe.
Veronica’s Position runs through May 20, at 7:30 p.m. most weeknights, 8 p.m. Fridays, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays, at the Tenth Street Theatre, beneath Calvary Church, at 10th and Wisconsin. Tickets are $26 or $22 for matinees, with a $2 discount for students/seniors. Call (414) 271-1371 or visit the In Tandem box office to order.