BOTTOM LINE: A cleverly written story about five unique people in an acting class. First-rate performances and a touching script make for a quality night of theatre that’s not to be missed.
First off, let me apologize for not seeing Circle Mirror Transformation, the new play by Annie Baker, sooner — the show closes November 15 at Playwrights Horizons. It’s the kind of show that’s most deserving of a positive review on a website visited by a wide variety of cool people. I want you to see this show.
If you’ve ever been in an acting class or, hell, been forced to do “team building” exercises, you’ll find relatable fodder here. And at its core it’s a sincere and engaging story of five normal people trying to find their way.
Circle Mirror Transformation takes place in a beginning acting class in a small town in Vermont. It’s a community class, open to everyone, and four unique individuals have signed up for the five-week program instructed by Marty (Deirdre O’Connell): Marty’s husband, James (Peter Friedman), recently divorced Schultz (Reed Birney), shy sixteen-year-old Lauren (Tracee Chimo), and ex-New York actress Theresa (Heidi Schreck). Through the five weeks, the characters play those ridiculous games to get comfortable with one another (e.g. everyone lies on the floor, and the group tries to count to ten without two people saying the same number). They also play trust games that lead to soul-bearing openness (everyone writes a secret on a piece of paper and then someone else anonymously reads it). Through these situations the audience learns who these characters are. This leads to an incredible connection between the characters and the audience because as the play goes on and their back stories become clear, their interactions and conversations all become colored; the audience is given the insight to really get it. This is a testament to Baker’s incredible writing and also to the actors’ abilities to bring these characters to life, with all of their quirks and nuances.
It’s hard to find standouts in the cast because they are truly an ensemble. Playwrights Horizons has a tendency to hire the best actors in town, whether they are under the radar or well-known. Circle Mirror Transformation is no exception. All have amazing credits, whether Broadway or not, and all have every right embodying these characters. The casting is really extraordinary and if I saw these actors on the street I’m sure I would first recognize them as their character and not as the actor who played that character (an important distinction, in my mind). And with a really great production value (the stage, though not overly-designed, shows a community center studio complete with gymnastics mats in the corner and a mirrored wall on one side) the production boasts a high quality overall.
Director Sam Gold does a great job bringing this story to life, without making it overly silly or flimsy. The comedy is consistent through the show but it takes various forms, further engaging the audience. Sometimes the humor is strictly physical comedy, sometimes its based on an awkward conversation the audience knows will only get worse, sometimes the audience laughs because they’re uncomfortable. To be sure, Circle Mirror Transformation is one of the funniest shows I’ve seen in a while.
Circle Mirror Transformation is a touching tale. As the characters unravel themselves to each other, they also let the audience in on who they really are. And as a result, the audience takes the journey with them. A cleverly told story with fabulous performances in a small and intimate off-Broadway theatre isn’t always the easiest find in the New York theatre world, so when it occurs it’s worth checking out. Hopefully Circle Mirror Transformation will get another run off-Broadway, but if you can make it to Playwrights Horizons this weekend or next, I’d highly recommend seeing this show.
Circle Mirror Transformation plays at Playwrights Horizons’ Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 W. 42nd St., through Sun 11/15. Showtimes are Tue-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 2 and 7:30 PM, and Sun 2 and 7 PM. The play runs 1 hr. 50 min., with no intermission. Tickets are $50 and are available at ticketcentral.com or by calling 212-279-4200; for $35 tickets visit broadwaybox.com and use discount code CMBB. For more information, visit playwrightshorizons.org.