Watching Kathleen Littlefield, or: What genre of play Love, Love, Love is #LLLPlay
NB (yes, Americans know and use this abbreviation, although here it tends to get used primarily in scholarly settings): I am going to stop using the “spoilers” label for Love, Love, Love posts).
When I saw Love, Love, Love at the end of its run, I encountered a somewhat changed play. I’ll write more about that as I document my impressions from each performance, but one obvious change was that Zoe Kazan became seriously ill and from December 9 through the matinée on December 17, her role was played by her understudy, Kathleen Littlefield — for a total of ten shows. I understand that it’s rare for an understudy to perform in this many shows. Kazan returned on the evening of December 17 and played the last two shows, so on my second phase of viewing the play, I saw two shows performed by each actor. The subtle contrast between the shows provides additional data to answer the questions I articulated about the play earlier: about the dramatic effect of balancing character perspectives and the genre of the play and whether it’s significant. In particular, I was interested in what makes the play funny (or not), and whether / how the play functions if it is not a dark comedy or a satire of manners.
A few things in the back of my mind as I wrote this post:
- I wanted to have some idea of what went through an understudy’s mind in a situation like this, so I asked Heather the question that led to this post about how regular play casts and understudies view the process of understudying and executing an understudied role, and of integrating the understudy in the regular production.
- Littlefield was one of the actors at the Saturday matinée “talk back” and she was asked the question directly: what is it like to be an understudy and go on? Littlefield stated that she had understudied a role before but had not gone on; this was the first time she’d gone on stage as an understudy, but the process of developing a character was different when one was not the principal cast member. She was very complimentary about the collaborative process of developing the character with actors, directors, and the other understudies (and Amy Ryan and Ben Rosenfield were very complimentary about her work). Littlefield also referred to interactions in rehearsals and discussions and so on. At the same time, she mentioned that her nightly observation of the play generally and Kazan in particular was meant as a means of keeping track of what was happening in the play and how the production was developing, so that she would know how to perform, but that of course individuals have different understandings of a character, and the point of understudying someone is not to do an impression of the principal’s performance.
- In this Q&A, Littlefield also said something revealing — that she thought that Kenneth should have come to some solution that would have allowed him to help his daughter out. I’m paraphrasing on purpose because I think the actual answer she gave made her sound as if she had not thought about the question in very practical terms — what’s key to me is her instinctive emotional sympathy in terms of the play’s conflicts.
- There may have been difficulties with timing at the the beginning of her run. How could there not be? But by the time I saw Littlefield, she was performing the part of Rose with complete mastery and perfect timing. Had I not seen the play before, I would not have known she was not the primary actor cast in the role. Nonetheless — in the vein of her performance not being an impression of Kazan’s — it was quite different, and it did influence the impact of the play.
- I’m noting some matters here that may not be related to the contrasts between Littlefield’s and Kazan’s respective performances. The play was performed 36 times between my viewings of it in November and December, so some things that seemed pronounced earlier on could have changed even before Littlefield’s stint (or vice versa — things that were minor could have become major). Moreover, Littlefield’s performance of Rose did, in turn, influence Kazan’s.
- Comparisons are odious, naturally, but in cognitive terms, it seems the only for me to proceed is through a comparison of Littlefield’s and Kazan’s performances. Both of them are accomplished artists and graduates of demanding theater arts programs. Littlefield’s English accent sounds more mid-Atlantic than Kazan’s, who sounds more like a British speaker of English, but I don’t feel that this difference was significant to the audiences I saw the play with. Each of them is beautiful. Still, there are differences and these are meaningful.
Perhaps the most obvious point from which to start to talk about Littlefield as Rose is her appearance. If you want to get some idea about that, here’s her showreel, although this version is five years old.
Littlefield is about three inches taller than Kazan; she has longer, redder hair as opposed to Kazan’s mid-length red-brown shade; and Littlefield’s face is narrower than Kazan’s, whose face is rounder in a way that makes her look somewhat friendlier. This effect is enhanced by Kazan’s rather generous, bow-shaped mouth, and rounder eyes. In terms of posture, Littlefield stands more strictly and severely than Kazan, whose posture tends to be more flexible and relaxed on stage. They are similarly (very) slender or h/w proportionate, but Littlefield’s height and posture make her look lankier whereas Kazan’s make her look curvier. Littlefield’s shoulders are pronounced, while Kazan’s hips are more prominent. In terms of their vibe, Kazan’s is ultimately more lighthearted and Littlefield’s is more serious; Kazan seems sweet while Littlefield seems striking. While I do think that an actor should be able to learn to perform different kinds of roles, as that is part of the job, it seems to be a pattern that certain kinds of actors or actors with certain appearances tend to be cast in particular patterns, and certain actors have particular proclivities for certain genres of work. I wouldn’t necessarily say that Kazan exudes a particularly comic vibe, but Littlefield definitely does not.
As we know, Rose appears first in Act Two. Littlefield’s Rose starts more positively disposed toward her father, so that the relative affection between the two is more apparent (and the impact of the way that Kenneth is triangulating his wife and daughter toward the middle of the act seems greater, as his ignorance of basic facts about Rose’s life seems more callous). Littlefield’s playing of Rose’s age seems concentrated primarily on the pitch of her voice (this has at least something to do with the fact that the three inches she has on Kazan make some of Kazan’s classic “teenage” or “childish” moves harder for Littlefield to execute conveniently; it seems harder for Littlefield to physically make herself small. But at times she seems more sensitive or to provide the audience with a broader range of emotions — Littlefield’s Rose is more easily wounded by Jamie, and more quickly hostile to Sandra, with the effect that she seems younger than Kazan’s Rose does. But the performance also ratchets up Ryan’s need to respond and (in my opinion) pulls more from her, a wider, wilder, wavier form of her dysfunction. The audience also seems in slightly greater sympathy with Littlefield’s Rose in her conflicts with her parents, earning more frequent and greater applause for her pronouncement that her parents are “the shittiest” than Kazan tended to on the occasions I saw her. In general, Littlefield moved more quickly from emotional place to emotional place than Kazan did.
The result of that wider and quicker change in emotional registers has a proportionally greater effect in Act Three where, as we’ve noted, the question of comedy vs drama becomes more acute. Littlefield’s Rose is quite simply much more emotional — her closeness to Jamie is much more troubled; she signals how upset she is well before she speaks to her parents (which in turn makes Kenneth’s inability to see his daughter seem more apparent). And while Kazan’s Rose has no problem bringing across her problems with her parents, Littlefield’s Rose — with her greater physical severity, her more erect posture, her calculated speech — seems more moralistic and frankly, much more aggrieved. Littlefield is so angry that it’s much harder to keep laughing at the punchlines (“It’s all your fault”; “I want you to buy me a house”) that seem key to thinking of her character as at least on some level ridiculous.
So, I think — if Love, Love, Love is a comedy — Kazan enjoys a clear advantage. Her smaller height makes it easier for her to perform the maneuvers in Act Two — the crouching, the rocking, the arm crossing, the hunching over — that make her Rose seem immature. Her performance of Rose’s disgust with her parents is much more heavily reliant on her contorted face and somewhat less on her voice, which is hilarious at times when Littlefield primarily manages mostly to be shrill. The contrast in hair styles between Acts Two and Three seems more effective at making Kazan seem juvenile at first and mature later than it does for Littlefield (who may simply have an “older” face). And the persistence of Kazan’s mannerisms — particularly the way she screws up her face when she’s angry, as well as her apparent greater affection for Jamie and lesser obvious grief at her parents — make it possible for us to continue to find her Rose funny well into Act Three.
But I don’t think this means that Littlefield didn’t do well in the role, because she did. Witnessing Littlefield’s performance made me see in valuable ways how Acts Two and Three might would look if the play were performed more as a drama than a comedy. I’d postulated earlier that Rose’s wild immaturity in Act Two is gauged to make it impossible for the audience to take sides, but in Littlefield’s performances, audience reactions suggested that we’d decided who we favored and it definitely wasn’t Sandra and Kenneth. In a way, Littlefield’s Rose’s greater emotion makes the middle section of Act Two (Kenneth and Sandra’s hashing out of their mutual infidelities, which is harder to laugh at) more coherent and intelligible, because it in pulling more from Ryan and making Kenneth look worse, it sets the viewer up for a much smoother transition toward our witnessing of their shocking marital problems. Littlefield’s performance of Rose also makes the end of Act Two seem more organic rather than pasted on as a kind of over-the-top joke (which, if you could actually see it, would definitely not be funny — cue the “abusive” laughter).
In the end, the way Littlefield plays Rose makes it really, really difficult to laugh much in Act Three. This is not a criticism — it’s an artistic choice that ends up saying something revealing about the work as a whole. Littlefield’s performance revealed that Act Two can be played with almost equal impact as a dark comedy or a drama; something different is conveyed in either case, but that act has a lot of flexibility in it. Act Three, in contrast, if played primarily in a dramatic mood, as Littlefield’s performance forwarded, is simply not as good. That isn’t to say it doesn’t make sense: that Kenneth and Sandra’s neglect drove Rose toward a suicide attempt suggests that there’s a central family drama that needs to be resolved or at least addressed before we all leave the theater. The comedic elements there — primarily, Rose’s behavior, which Sandra disparages as “so dramatic”; Rose’s over the top demands — hide the unsubtlety of the imbalance between Rose and her parents. These elements disguise somewhat the gaping wound that Sandra reveals she is certainly aware of, even if she’s unwilling to give any ground to help her daughter emotionally, if not practically. Thus the play when performed as a comedy can leave open — because it distracts us from asking it — the question about whether the bigger parenting catastrophe in Act Three is the failure to support Rose financially when she brings herself to ask OR the fact that after so long, Kenneth and Sandra still can’t bring themselves to listen to their daughter and support her emotionally or acknowledge her reality as she experiences it. The fact that we’re all laughing or scoffing at the absurdity of the former hides the troubling persistence of the latter.
Additionally, I think, the comedy and the fact that Rose’s silly demands put her one down even when she articulates a reasonable point hide the lack of depth with which Kenneth and Sandra reflect about the courses of their own lives. In short, I suppose, Kenneth and Sandra are more tolerable when Rose is funnier at this point, but Littlefield’s playing of the character in Act Three was much more directed toward the justness of Rose’s position rather than the foibles of her personality. As a result, Kenneth and Sandra, but Sandra in particular, seem much more like monsters than parents. When Rose isn’t funny, the play is much more clearly an indictment of something — whether of the boomers as a generation, the selfishness of these two boomers, the “ladder” that they “broke as they went,” or the dysfunctionality of a love that is based primarily on whim and attraction rather than commitment and sacrifice, something else entirely, or several of these, is not clear. But whereas I can see how the comedy might be subtle and provocative, it’s very hard for me to see how an indictment in this particular shape would be.
In any case, I know everyone — cast, crew, theater, and most of all audience — was grateful to see Kathleen Littlefield step into that role with such ultimate grace and professionalism.