There are two ways to be an actor—either to disappear into the role, or to let the role come to you. In other words, to be a modest interpreter or an overwhelming personality. In still other words, be like Laurence Olivier and Meryl Streep, or like Cary Grant and Carol Channing. Either way can work in the right hands.
In the recent revival of “Hello, Dolly!” on Broadway, one could get Bette Midler, Donna Murphy or Bernadette Peters, and I leave it to you to decide which of them was what I shall call Mode A, and which Mode B. There have been exceptions and surprises: George C. Scott could actually play a character based on Noel Coward, a case of a Mode B actor doing well at Mode A. Good looks are helpful in either mode, but funny looks could be just as good, think Zero Mostel and, yes, Barbra Streisand.
Now we come to the Dolly of Betty Buckley, whom she has been playing since September 2018 in the National Tour. Ms. Buckley is that rare performer who somehow manages both modes simultaneously. But please don’t make the mistake of assuming that my admiration for her is based on friendship; if anything, it is the other way round, with my friendship based on admiration.
So here we were at the Kennedy Center, my wife and I, sitting very close to the stage. But I kept wondering: Who is this woman playing Dolly Levi? Sometimes it was indeed someone I knew, but at other times it was someone whom I had never met before. A wig can look like a fedora on a mule; Betty wore hers as if they had been cohabiting since early childhood.
Notable is a scene in which Dolly is esuriently stuffing herself at the expense of the rich man she secretly intends to marry. The way Midler played it, it was something, from the domain of Marx Brother farce. Here it had humanity along with the humor. It was not so much greedy as well-earned.
And something else. Any actor will tell you that the hardest thing to convey is thought, to look like someone who is cogently thinking. The screen can do it with close-ups and lighting, on the stage there is no such recourse: you have to act it. Buckley did it subtly with swiftly modulating expressions.
One minute she is very much the cozy woman I know, merely somewhat disguised; the next minute, I cannot believe that this person only a few feet away is really Betty Buckley: Mode A and Mode B are triumphantly merged. She is not just the actress who can also sing or the singer who can also act; she is the complete performer about whom such questions do not even arise.
Now for another matter altogether: Donald Margulies’s current Broadway play, “Long Lost.” This Manhattan Theatre Club production is not quite up to the playwright’s best, Margulies marvels such as “Sight Unseen” and “Dinner With Friends,” but it is still as good as, or better than, most of what is now playing..
What is the problem? Well, in a fully successful play you want to identify with one or another character, may even feel compelled to do so. But in “Long Lost,” an older brother, Billy, who has become some sort of hobo (it is not specified just what kind), gone for a good many years, shows up uninvited at younger brother David’s successful businessman office. Equally undesired, he follows David even into the latter’s grand, Park Avenue style apartment, for what may be an unwelcome and undetermined guest-room stay.
David’s wife, Molly, is the head of an important charity operation she initiated, but had, it emerges, a drunken one-night stand with Billy on the eve of her wedding to David. They now have a charming collegiate son, Jeremy, a sporadic student at the distinguished Brown University, who takes to Billy perhaps a little too much. It further emerges that, given a troubled marriage, David has for long had a clandestine mistress on the side. Billy’s meddlesome presence causes revelations difficult for all concerned.
A problem with all this is that none of the adults comes off as a particularly winning personality, except perhaps Jeremy, but he is hardly a grown-up. Despite mostly apt dialogue, none of it is all that compelling, and we get an uneasy mixture of comedy and drama. There are no surprises to speak of either.
To be sure, there is convincing stage design by the dependable John Lee Beatty and assured costuming by Toni-Leslie James, as well as savvy lighting by Kenneth Posner. Daniel Sullivan has directed with his customary expertise, but somehow I expected more. This despite solid performances from Kelly Aucoin (David), Annie Parisse (Molly), Lee Tergesen (Billy) and Alex Wolfe (Jeremy). This quartet also benefits from none of them being too histrionic or excessively familiar,
but making a virtue of ordinariness is not the simplest thing in the theater or indeed in the world. In the end, one counted on being moved at least when Billy and a visiting Jeremy have a nice scene together in a retirement facility, but even that leaves one, if not exactly cold, only lukewarm.