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The Bay at Nice.

(HARTFORD STAGE; 489 SEATS; $60 TOP)

HARTFORD, Conn. A Hartford Stage production of a play in one act by David Hare. Directed by Michael Wilson. Sets, Tony Straiges; costumes, Willa Kim: lighting; Rui Rita; sound, John Gromada; assistant costume designer, Richard Schurkamp; assistant lighting designer, Michael Brown; dialect and voice coach, Gillian Lane-Plescia; production stage manager, Bethany Ford; production manager, Deborah Vandergrift. Opened, reviewed Oct. 22, 2004. Runs though Nov. 14. Running time: 1 HOUR, 15 MIN.
Valentina Nrovka    Estelle Parsons
Sophia Yepileva       Angelica Torn
Assistant Curator       Corey Brill
Peter Linitsky        Peter Maloney


Exploring the choices made in both life and art is what's at the heart of David Hare's "The Bay at Nice," receiving its first major U.S. production at Hartford Stage. Originally presented in 1986 with a since-rejected companion piece ("Wrecked Eggs"), the play is a compelling chamber piece that provides a juicy role for an actress--Irene Worth in the London premiere; here Estelle Parsons as the formidable grand dame with a provocative past. At 75 minutes, the work is brief but substantial, and it adds to the playwright's sizable canon of how political and social forces shape ordinary lives. But it also gives audiences a chance to witness a smart, funny and theatrically rich mother-daughter duel that is a work of art unto itself.

At first, the fight seems unfair. Dressed in Willa Kim's regal plum and black outfit, Parsons' Valentina Nrovka looks to be the last imperialist in Leningrad in 1956. She seems an outsize match for her dowdy daughter, whose tentative courage is perfectly played by Angelica Torn.

As a student of Matisse and a Bohemian expatriate in Paris in her youth in the early '20s, Valentina is summoned to the Hermitage because it is believed she understands the "spirit" of her mentor. Guided by a politically cautious curator (Corey Brill), she is asked to help determine the authenticity of a small unsigned work--perhaps an early study toward a final painting--believed to be by the master.

Beyond the picture frame, however, stuff happens, to borrow the title from Hare's current London hit. But it's the choices one makes that mark the difference between an accepted life and one filled with what-could-have-beens.

Parsons glows with the righteous certainty of a woman who has come to terms with the choice she made in leaving behind her "wayward" days in Paris to return to the Soviet Union when she became pregnant with her daughter. Realizing that freedom is not so simple a concept in the real world, she chose responsibility over self (though she also was wooed by the promise and social purpose of the early days of the rebellion). But revolution soon turned to repression--and worse--and Valentina has made peace with the past in order to survive in the present.

Not so her mousy daughter, the wife of an ambitious Communist Party member and mother of two small children. She longs for escape and finds it clandestinely in the bland safety of a much older man with no party ambitions, played with endearing nervousness and hopeless devotion by Peter Maloney.

In her quest for personal freedom, the daughter needs Valentina's help, both financially and as an ally in the bureaucratic hurdles to achieve a divorce.

In this confrontation between parental responsibility and personal freedom set in the world of art and polities, the authorship of the painting becomes a side issue. (Valentina doesn't even look at the veiled work until near the last moments of the play.) Other than illuminating the theme of the play, what's on the canvas is less important than what's onstage.

Like the Matisse painting in question, Parsons is a study of precision and essentials. She demonstrates clarity, confidence and economy in her portrait of a woman of immense charm, cruelty and wisdom.

As Sophia, Torn has the desperate heartbreak of a woman seeking her own moment in life, however wrong her choice may be.

Tony Straiges mirrors the spirit of the art in question with a set featuring just the bare necessities: several imposing pillars, a rendition of Guerin's huge "Iris and Morpheus," a neglected chandelier on the floor. Rui Rita does the same with his finely controlled and subtle lighting. Michael Wilson directs with a like-minded respect for clarity of character and purpose, helping to make the undiscovered "The Bay at Nice" a great miniature from a master artist.
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Title Annotation:theater
Author:Rizzo, Frank L.
Publication:Variety
Article Type:Theater Review
Date:Nov 1, 2004
Words:729
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