“Her Requiem,” Greg Pierce’s improbable if skillfully acted new drama, now at Lincoln Center’s Claire Tow Theater, is supposedly about a 17-year-old high school student’s decision to take a year off from school to compose a requiem. But it could just as easily have been called “His Obsession,” because it largely focuses on her father’s well-meaning but ultimately wrong-headed responses to that decision. We don’t even meet daughter Caitlin (Naian Gonzalez Norvind) in person until almost an hour through the 90-minute play.
Dean (Peter Friedman) lives with his family in a big house in the Vermont countryside that was the childhood home of his wife Allison (Mare Winningham.) He is an erudite man – when we first see him, he is discoursing knowledgeably on the history of dice over a game of backgammon with his wife – but he has no job, living off the earnings of his wife, a special education teacher, and (the play implies) off her family’s money. Dean has had ambitious projects, none of which panned out, as Allison’s mother Gram (a terrific turn by Joyce Van Patten) tauntingly reminds him.
Gram: …how’s Poison Ivy Press coming along?”
Dean: It was called Wild Oak Press as you well know and we went under about eight years ago as you also well know but I so appreciate your feigning memory loss so you can bring up my past failures.
Gram: I only brought up one
So when he learns of his daughter’s project, Dean takes to it as if it was his own. He’s fine with her locking herself in her room, communicating only with her former violin teacher, Tommy (Robbie Collier Sublett) and he defends Caitlin’s behavior to Allison, who is not fine with any of it.
The principal at Caitlin’s school has required her to write a blog detailing her progress, and to include clips from her composition on her blog posts. Dean writes the blog for her, and does it so eloquently that it attracts dozens of devotees from around the country, who arrive at their doorstep, represented on stage by a Goth teenager (Keilly McQuail) who gave herself the name Mirtis Paima, which in an obscure Central American language means “death black.” (Kudos to Jessica Pabst for Paima’s spot-on but still humorous attire.) Dean lets them stay in the barn and in the garage.
The gathering of groupies for a teenager writing a classical composition for the dead seems unlikely enough, but then the play takes a couple of even more unexpected turns. I won’t spoil them except to say that they feel imposed by the playwright, in order to goose up an otherwise tame story, and to make it more thought provoking.
Pierce, whose 2012 play “Slowgirl” initiated the “new plays, new audiences” LCT3 program at Claire Tow, a newly constructed top floor of Lincoln Center Theater, can thank director Kate Whoriskey for assembling a first-class design team for “Her Requiem,” and a group of actors who, as in The Humans, by their very presence nearly guarantee something worth watching. Peter Friedman (like Reed Birney) was even in Circle Mirror Transformation, my touchstone for subtle, ensemble Off-Broadway acting, and has (like Birney) been a steady presence on the New York stage for four decades. His Dean may be reckless, but he’s also likable, and Friedman goes a long way to making him believable. Mare Winningham the former brat pack movie idol whom television viewers most recently saw as the nasty matriarch in The Affair, has been making a splash on the New York stage, in such works as Tribes, After The Revolution (with Friedman), Picnic, and Casa Valentina (which also starred Reed Birney!) She makes Allison’s love and appreciation for Dean palpable, even as we get why his actions are driving her away.
“Her Requiem” would seem the ideal set-up to explore music in several layers, as have other works about classical music, such as Amadeus, and the current Amazon Prime series Mozart in the Jungle. Pierce, who has become John Kander’s second collaborator (after the the death of Fred Ebb) might seem the right person to pen such an exploration. But we only hear the briefest snippets of music, and are mostly given technical talk about a requiem’s structure – there’s mention of the “Introitus” and the “Agnus Dei,” movements within the musical form. If this may (or may not) be catnip for classically trained musicians, it is hard to imagine anybody else leaving “My Requiem” and rushing to set up a requiem playlist.
Written by Greg Pierce
Directed by Kate Whoriskey
Cast: Peter Friedman, Naian Gonzalez Norvind, Kelly McQuail, Robbie Collier Sublett, Joyce Van Patten, Mare Winningham
Kate Whoriskey (director)
Derek McLane (sets)
Jessica Pabst (costumes)
Smith Chandrashaker (lights)
Josh Schmidt (sound)
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.
Her Requiem is set to run through March 20