Sean Ireland and Jessie Barr in Ideal. Photo by Avery McCarthy.
BOTTOM LINE: Really for those who are interested in the work of Ayn Rand and want a chance to see her rarely-staged play (especially if you don't mind the lack of dramatic tension and character development).
If you've made it through one of Ayn Rand's hefty novels, you'll recognize the character of Kay Gonda, the movie star under suspicion of murder in Rand's rarely produced play Ideal. Not that Gonda herself appears anywhere else in Rand's oeuvre, but she's your typical Randian hero- the staunch individualist, both enormously talented and grossly misunderstood, who refuses to compromise in her search for perfection. Unfortunately, while Ideal certainly gets across many of Rand's key themes, and does not shirk from potential controversy, it is not a very good play. Rand's epic novels allow her plenty of space to communicate her philosophies while simultaneously providing an interesting story and developed characters; her novels are long, but not boring. In contrast, Ideal may not be very long, but it quickly becomes tedious.
Much of this is due to the play's structure. In the prologue, we learn that Gonda is under suspicion for the murder of her one-time lover Granton Sayers. Although Gonda has disappeared, her secretary reports that six fan letters are mysteriously missing. The next scene begins with a voiceover of one letter, after which we see the author of said fan mail going about his life, clearly unhappy and frustrated. Gonda arrives, looking for a place to hide out for the night. The man wants to let Gonda stay, but when his wife challenges him, the man proves he is not willing to sacrifice his less-than-ideal life, and asks Gonda to leave. She leaves, and another scene begins. Guess what happens five more times?
Five more letters, five more visits to potential "Ideals" (all men), five more dream-crushing women who bring down the men in various ways. (As you can see, the gender politics in this piece are a bit questionable.) One man is in business, another is an activist, and another is an artist, yet these are only superficial differences. In each scene, Rand uses the discussion between Gonda and her male fan to communicate Rand's objectivist philosophy. The specific characters aren't important because they're not really characters at all. Even Gonda, capably played by Jessie Barr, is a pencil sketch in comparison to Rand's heroes from other works, like Howard Roark or John Galt.
The play's predictability continues through the final letter– if you're expecting Gonda's sixth visit to be different, you're right! Fortunately, this is when the play actually gets interesting, since we finally get dramatic conflict, and it is no longer clear what will happen next. Sure, it takes almost the entire play to get here, but Gonda's scene with Johnnie Dawes, the author of the last fan letter, is worth staying (or staying awake) for. Dawes is played by Dan Pfau, who somehow manages to create a rich, complex character out of Rand's rhetoric. Pfau also plays the classic bitter cynic (another common Randian character) in the prologue. With these two characters, Pfau gives, hands down, the best performance in the show; he is instantly captivating, drawing you in with his quiet intensity. The other actors (all of whom, except for Barr, play multiple characters) are certainly fine performers, although they're almost uniformly a bit young for their roles. But Pfau is the clear stand out.
If Jenny Beth Snyder paces the play well, her staging is more static than I would have preferred. And the sparse design doesn't give you much to look at when your attention wanders. The set is strictly utilitarian, and the space is so small that you can catch every detail in the costumes (including the fact that several of them could use an iron). Yet for all this, the main problems in Ideal are really the result of an author who just doesn't know how to write a good play. I applaud the effort to stage Ideal, since Ayn Rand is a major literary figure, and one might argue that even a third-rate Rand text is worth the occasional look. For some, this might be reason enough to see Ideal. It certainly takes less time than reading Atlas Shrugged. Unfortunately, as act two begins and you have three more letters to go, it may not feel like it.
(Ideal plays at 59E59 Theaters, at 59 East 59th Street, through July 3rd. The remaining performances are Tuesday through Saturday at 7:30 pm. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased by calling Ticket Central at 212-279-4200, or online at www.ticketcentral.com. For more information visit www.59E59.org.)