While the upcoming student productions of The Who’s Tommy and Three Sisters rehearsed upstairs, and the Pinter plays held tech rehearsal in the Experimental Theater, a different kind of event was humming in the Loeb’s West Lobby. On Oct. 22, the Houghton Mifflin Company sponsored the third annual benefit reading from the 2001 edition of its publication, The Best American Short Stories. The evening benefited PEN (Poets/Playwrights, Essayists, Editors, Novelists) New England, the regional branch of the only worldwide organization of writing professionals, and made for a worthy excuse to put incredible talent on stage. At a reasonable price and with minimal pomp, it proved both an excellent way to support the arts and to enjoy them.
The American Repertory Theatre (A.R.T.) was merely playing host, but the well dressed, older crowd was able to chat with familiar faces from the A.R.T., including Resident Dramaturg Gideon Lester and company members Karen MacDonald and Will LeBow, who were performing in the benefit. Volunteers from PEN New England, largely young writers, were eager to press wine into the hands of those who came early for food and social hour. Rialto Restaurant of the Charles Hotel provided dessert fare, and the brownies, delicious confections which dissolved in the mouth like so much nutty, brown sugary goo, must have given the older members of the audience a sugar-induced rush of energy as they filed into the Loeb Mainstage.
Sue Miller, author of such novels as Inventing the Abbotts, introduced the readings in her capacity as chair of PEN New England. Recasting the importance of the event in light of recent events, she called the arts “consoling and enlarging and just what we need in these complicated times.”
The audience on this Monday night was certainly receptive to such sentiments and excited to see acting heavyweights interpret new work. Highly anticipated was the appearance of Rebecca Pidgeon, an actress featured in the David Mamet films The Spanish Prisoner, State and Main and his upcoming Heist. Miller praised Pidgeon, the big draw of the evening, for her “fine and subtle touch as an actress.”
But it was MacDonald who was first to offer a reading on this evening. A hometown favorite and founding member of the A.R.T., her introduction was interrupted by spontaneous applause. After receiving such a warm welcome, MacDonald took the stage to read “The Apple Tree” by Trevanian. The story, set in a Basque village in Western Europe, evokes fables told to children about provincial life, but distinguishes itself with a sharp sense of humor. A tale of rival widows battling over a mutually owned apple tree, it combines the authentic flavor of Basque culture with a tale of loneliness and the human drive to keep on living. Trevanian’s hallmark, however, is his approach to humor. MacDonald capitalized on this with an earnest narrative style and understatement of irony which evoked great laughs from the house.
Pidgeon was next to take the stage. To point out that Pidgeon is mostly known for interpretations of her husband’s (Mamet’s) work would be to short-change her charm, sense of humor and musical ability (which is displayed on her fourth CD, the recently released Tangerine). Needless to say, with Pidgeon’s film career so active, it has become difficult for theater audiences to see her back on the stage, especially in the Boston area. As one theatergoer commented, it would be worth it to watch her read the phone book.
For the benefit, she did not read the phone book, though, but rather an involving piece by Peter Ho Davies, “Think of England.” Set in Wales during World War II, “Think of England” reveals the tension behind interactions between Welsh and English, provincials and soldiers, men and women. Pidgeon, raised in Scotland, slipped gradually into British vowels as she read the dialogue. Her unassuming reading allowed the subtlety of Davies’ writing to do its work, presenting a young Welsh girl yearning for a life beyond her provincial town.
The final piece of the evening was “Boys” by Rick Moody. The short story explores the changing lives of maturing children with a narrative style perhaps closer to poetry than prose. LeBow, who played the father last year in the A.R.T.’s world premiere of Adam Rapp’s Nocturne, lent his rich voice to a blunt delivery that gave the comic and dramatic moments of the story equal power. The story is too short and well crafted to ruin with synopsis, but it reveals the humanity of the sort of rambunctious young men who seemed so callous in “Think of England.” “Boys” provided a bittersweet ending to the evening, bringing the other stories into focus with a tragic ending that touched on the fears inherent in all of them: growing old, the tragedy of love, the desire to find something transcendent in life.
The benefit was a worthy tribute to PEN New England and a fine demonstration of the opportunities available for events as close as at the A.R.T, a major center of theater talent located just down the street from the Yard. It deserves a student audience. Those who made it to the benefit were already aware of the valuable resource and were rewarded with a unique moment in time—a reading of brand new literature by three talented actors who may never share a stage again.