[An extended version of my Bella Figura review, which ran in the June 2015 issue of Exberliner.]
It’s a garden-variety couple’s spat: She thinks he’s patronising her. He thinks she’s imagining things. It continues, without going much of anywhere, until someone else interrupts the petulant chatter. “Excuse me,” says the interloper. “But this whole thing is extremely embarrassing.”
Well-put. “This whole thing” is Bella Figura, a new play by Yasmina Reza. The French playwright, known for the bougie brawls of God of Carnage and Art, wrote Bella Figura specifically for Schaubühne director Thomas Ostermeier and for this cast, which includes Nina Hoss and Mark Waschke (they’re the bickering couple). But the result, which premiered in May, is a bloodless shadow of a play: superficial, bland and devoid of bite. And embarrassing, because actors of this calibre deserve much better material.
The play opens with Boris (Waschke) and his lover Andrea (Hoss) in the parking lot of a fancy seafood spot. The two snip at each other for a while before getting into the car and promptly backing into an elderly woman. The woman, Yvonne (Lore Stefanek), doesn’t seem to be hurt. But she does love oysters, and she’s here to celebrate her birthday with her son, Eric, and her daughter-in-law, Françoise. And – uh oh – Françoise is a lifelong friend of Boris’ wife. So, of course, they all sit down for drinks. And, of course, it’s unpleasant.
Boris, a businessman, is on the brink of bankruptcy. Andrea, a nerve-rattled pharmaceutical assistant, pops a few pills. Eric (Renato Schuch) tries to play nice. Françoise (Stephanie Eidt) wants to call it like it is. Yvonne, bless her borderline-senile heart, provides some comic relief, recounting her days as a baroque-style pinup girl, asking Andrea for medical advice and dropping her precious leather-bound notebook in the toilet (Hoss’ long arms to the rescue!)
In their chic, champagne-hued outfits – and their flutes of Champagne to match – these characters exude upper-middle-class comfort. Which doesn’t necessarily make it impossible to care about their problems, but, well, it kind of makes it impossible to care about their problems. Andrea is the only character Reza gives much depth, and she’s the relative outsider: the mistress, the single mother, holding down a job in an out-of-the-way pharmacy. And, since the role was written specifically for Hoss, we get some lines about Andrea’s long legs and toothy smile. Well-observed, Reza.
Hoss, though, still runs with it. She’s a master of understated physical comedy, whether swatting at (imaginary) mosquitoes or gawking at (real) lobsters in an onstage tank. Throughout, her loneliness and sense of longing are palpable, in the way her body crumples in half when she’s sitting on the toilet, and in the way her tone of voice shifts depending on how much attention she’s being paid.
Ostermeier orchestrates a bit of boulevard-style slapstick but mostly plays it slick, straight and all too safe. The elegant staging might fit the characters’ self-image, but it hardly reflects their reality. And though a revolving stage lets us observe the actors from all angles, 360-degree views are no substitute for character development. All the while, crickets chirp, frogs croak and video of creepy-crawlies plays on a large screen. And, like those insects, these characters buzz around, occasionally stinging each other, but mostly acting as a mere annoyance.