Wright focuses on Mrs. Klein (Barbara Blossom) in London, one day in 1934. Her son Hans, 27, has fallen to his death while on holiday in the mountains, and Klein has summoned one of the graduate students at the Psychoanalytic Institute to proofread the galleys of her new book while she travels to attend her son's burial. Klein's daughter Melitta (Dee Nelson) is an analyst herself, married to one of her mother's major psychoanalytic rivals and and serving him as an eager participant in the academic warfare carried on in the professional journals. Melitta has applied the analytic methods her mother taught her to her brother Hans' words and actions on his last day, and concluded that his death was no accident, but suicide. Mother's fault. Paula (Susanne Nitter), the student, is caught in the middle, partly dreading the coming battle, partly -- like the audience-- eager to see so much ferocious intelligence in action, the two warriors who know themselves and each other so well battling to determine who will be the one who defines their relationship in terms so loaded that it is better to be bad than wrong.
The New Rep piece has the perfect set, props, sound, costumes, hair styles. It has the pace of a page turner of a detective story where every phrase, gesture, and object is a clue in a matter of life and death. Director Rick Lombardo winds the circumstances tight, then lets his actresses rip. What wonderful meaty roles these three actresses have, and how wonderfully they go at them! It wasn't so long ago that I saw a really fine production of "Mrs. Klein" at Shakespeare & Company, and I remember Wright's somewhat creaky "whodunit" plotting very well -- yet the script, and the acting, prove full of fresh revelations in this staging. Melanie Klein's genius comes across at the New Rep as almost a force of nature. Yes, she has willed her own genius, tuned into it, rode it towards success over the bodies of the people who love her. But anything less would have been an even greater betrayal, a betrayal of science and of intellect itself.. Barbara Blossom charges into the role with reckless abandon, determined to make the will and the genius visible and not at all worried about whether that looks pretty or sounds nice. Searching, grasping, sweeping away; commanding, revealing, rejecting; and scorning such trivial details as a consistent and plausible accent -- Blossom is absolutely right. What Mrs. Klein says is so extraordinary that how she pronounces it scarcely matters.
Dee Nelson has some trouble with her accent, too, but it is trouble of a different sort. Melitta has lived in London for a long time, and Wright's lines for her seem shaped to be delivered as Nelson delivers them, with a British accent. But Nelson sounds too good, too relaxed and modulated, too like the BBC. And Nelson's wholesome beauty and natural grace aren't assets in this role. Poor Melitta has been under siege by her bulldog of a mother all of her life, she has defenses piled on defenses to weigh her down and make her awkward. We should see Melitta's wheels spin, and the cracks in her armor. But Nelson's playing with ease and authority has compensations, in that she gives her mother a better target. Nelson also gives Susanne Nitter as Paula plenty of room to maneuver, allowing her to make her smallest gesture count. When these two are alone and free from the pressure of Klein's presence there is considerable warmth between the young women. They are natural allies against Klein's Queen Bee as well as rivals for her favor and contenders for her crown. Nelson and Nitter have a lovely scene together where they are trying to figure out what Mother Melanie could have done with an all-important letter, and at one point in their attempted burglary they collapse with helpless, childish, sisterly laughter. Best of all is when all three women are at full pitch, thinking furiously and exploding with insight like shrapnel. Bravo to Rick Lombardo for egging them on.
When a play is the occasion for such wonderful acting, such an abundant
display of courage and intelligence and sensitivity, it seems perverse
to complain that Wright's script is a little too well crafted, a little
too linear and logically plotted in the limiting manner of an Agatha Christie
mystery. Nevertheless, I'll say it. I think Wright's
play ties up Melanie Klein and her theories too neatly for its own good.
If the playwright weren't quite so determined to be clever at Mrs. Klein's
expense, he'd be more successful at helping us all learn to be wise.