Carey Perloff’s new play, “Higher”, is at its best when its leading lady, Elena Constantine (René Augesen) is the focus of attention. Elena is a successful architect dealing realistically with the vicissitudes of being a successful career woman. She is middle-aged, childless, unmarried and in a relationship with another successful but egotistical architect, Michael (Andrew Polk). This, of course, makes Elena insecure, constantly seeking his approval without being able to admit it. They find themselves in competition for the same job to build a memorial, unaware that they are each other’s opposition. It’s gender politics at its best, even though Michael is such a scumbag and thus a somewhat unfair example of a man.
Perloff has also crafted some great scenes, emotionally, between father and son Michael and Isaac (Ben Kahre). They have the kind of tension that can only be built up through a lifetime of disappointments, when Michael chose his work and his ego over his family and Isaac. Isaac isn’t meek or weak; he’s an independent, grown man. Kahre beautifully bares the scars that Isaac carries from this relationship, which tend to surface through sarcasm. When Isaac and Elena are together onstage, both having been hurt by the same man, their shared damage makes them dynamite together.
As Elena, René Augesen is a revelation. Like British actress Kristin Scott Thomas, her movements and her stillness always seem perfectly natural, despite the almost complete lack of a set to ground her. She delivers all of her lines, even the very bad ones, with the conviction that makes us believe what she says unquestioningly. Unfortunately, there are too many clumsy, unnatural elements to the script, the stage and the blocking. Augesen is caught in a play that can never live up to her own talent.
For a play that relies so much on setting—on contrasting the cut-throat hustle and bustle of New York life with the meditative atmosphere of the land where the memorial is to be built in Israel—it’s a bold but bad choice to leave the stage so devoid of setting. There is almost no furniture—no more than a bed or a table and chairs—and no backdrops of any kind: just the cold modern architecture of the blank set. Perhaps the attempt was to hint that Israel and America are not so different, but instead it left the play floating aimlessly.
The stage also seems too big for the space, especially when it’s empty. When we see Concetta Tomei as Valerie, the chairwoman of the competition, gesticulating madly across the stage, it looks like stilted over-acting. In a bigger or better-filled space, it might have seemed authentic, or at least less obtrusive.
“Higher” tries too hard to be clever. Many lines are intended as epigrams, delivered with the self-assurance that it will receive a laugh, that you can find yourself accidentally slipping into one; you feel gross afterward, when you realize it wasn’t actually funny. Sometimes the jokes are stale, like poking at the bleakness of Israel. Some make no sense: chocking up a character’s opacity to being Canadian. Some just don’t work.
Worse, “Higher” fails in its attempt at philosophical depth: interrogating the purpose of memorials. The memorial in question is for a bus of Jews that was bombed in Israel; as a Greek, is Augesen inauthentic for trespassing on their tragedy, memorializing their pain that is not her own? These questions do not unfold naturally; they feel as though they were inserted with little effort, almost as an afterthought to give the play depth.
René Augesen may be an entrancing star, but she’s not enough to save this play from mediocrity.