Sure, Rose Havoc (a.k.a. Mama Rose in Gypsy) was a nightmarish mother. But if she had written an autobiography, Rose surely would have mentioned her daughters June and Louise (who went on to become Gypsy Rose Lee and published her own autobiography). Hell, Rose would have probably depicted herself as the force behind her daughters’ success, sort of like in Gypsy, but in a more sympathetic vein.
By comparison, Kristin Miller, the protagonist of Alexi Kaye Campbell’s underwhelming family drama Apologia, who is a 1960s political radical turned famous American expatriate and art historian, somehow omitted any mention of her two adult sons, Peter and Simon, in her eagerly anticipated autobiography (which is receiving its own island display at Barnes and Noble). By comparison, one of her boyfriends merited his own chapter in the book.
This slight on the part of Kristin proves to be the trigger for a long-delayed family showdown at Kristin’s English countryside cottage, where Peter and Simon accuse their mother of neglecting them since they were children, and Kristin (in keeping with the play’s title, defined on the playbill cover as a “vindication, justification, explanation”) defends choosing activism and art over family, in front of an intimate audience made up of Peter’s fiancée (who is young and American and a devout Christian), Simon’s girlfriend (a soap opera star wearing an extremely expensive dress) and Hugh (Kristin’s elderly, wisecracking gay pal).
Apologia is an interesting programming choice for the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Laura Pels Theatre, its prime Off-Broadway space. It was first produced by London’s Bush Theatre in 2009 (when the play is set, immediately following Obama’s election) and was revived in 2017 by London’s Trafalgar Studios, with Stockard Channing in the lead and direction by Jamie Lloyd. The Roundabout production once again stars Channing, but this is technically a new staging, with direction by Daniel Aukin (who just helmed Joshua Harmon’s Skintight at the same venue) and a new supporting cast, including Hugh Dancy (Venus in Fur, Journey’s End) as both Peter and Simon, and John Tillinger (who appeared with Channing years ago in Joe Egg but is now better known as a director of comedies) as Hugh.
Although the play’s thematic content provides food for thought, it is not exactly original. Two years ago, at the same space, Roundabout produced Love, Love Love, Mike Bartlett’s comedy about two baby-boomers who meet in the 1960s and turn out to be terrible parents, leading to a present-day confrontation with their frustrated children. It is also reminiscent of Anthony Giardina’s The City of Conversation (which starred the late Jan Maxwell and was produced Off-Broadway by Lincoln Center Theater in 2012), which follows a woman whose political activism causes her to lose contact with her grandson, culminating in a modern-day epilogue.
Campbell has yet to enjoy a hit in New York. His drama The Pride (which contrasts the lives of gay men in 1958 and 2008) came over from England with a lot of buzz but did not transfer to Broadway following its high-profile Off-Broadway debut (with Hugh Dancy and Ben Whishaw, direction by Joe Mantello). Like The Pride, much of Apologia is slow and didactic, resembling a confessional clinical examination before a psychologist, with the characters taking turns lashing out at each other and defending themselves. Unexpectedly, the most interesting characters turn out to be the love interests of each son, each of whom is initially looked down upon by Kristin for their values and life choices. In fact, it is the sympathetic Trudi (played by Talene Monahon) who is able to break through Kristin’s emotional wall, leading to a somewhat obligatory final display of emotionality from Channing. There is no point to the character of Hugh other than perhaps comic relief and another source of reaction.
Dancy deserves credit for pulling off the dual characters. In fact, since Simon is only seen under dim lighting, I did not even realize that Dancy played both roles until I read the playbill after the performance. That being said, Apologia functions primarily as a star vehicle for Channing, who gives a crisp, driven, often humorous performance that is not all that different from ones she is already identified with, such as Rizzo in Grease and Martin Sheen’s wife on The West Wing. Had the Broadway revival of Hello, Dolly! kept running, Channing might have made for a winning Dolly Levi. Imagine the number of people who would have have bought tickets thinking they were going to see Carol Channing as Dolly.