'Year of Magical Thinking' Is Less Than Spellbinding

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 30, 2007

NEW YORK -- Stately, tasteful and solemn, "The Year of Magical Thinking" arrives on Broadway steeped in good breeding -- and devoid of anything to stir the blood.

The names associated with this one-woman show, which opened last night at the Booth Theatre, are unassailably illustrious. The direction is by provocative British playwright David Hare. The portrayal is by the peerless Vanessa Redgrave. And the words are by Joan Didion, who has adapted her memoir of the same title, recording her actions and reactions after the life-threatening illness in 2003 of her only child, Quintana, and the sudden death of her husband, novelist John Gregory Dunne.

Quintana died, too, before the memoir's publication in 2005, and the stage version incorporates Didion's narration of this additional terrible blow.

One feels enormous sympathy for Didion and the ordeal that this double dose of horror sent her way. For its crisply analytical deconstruction of grief, the book is a brisk and deeply satisfying read.

So why do the lengthy passages that Redgrave recites for us in this 90-minute piece -- a goodly portion of them verbatim from the book -- rustle past us like so many piles of decaying leaves?

Perhaps it is because the form and language of "Magical Thinking" -- the book is a ramblingly intimate journal -- were conceived so completely as an experience to be digested at one's own speed, in an easy chair, that the filter of "acting" robs it of its specialness, its power.

One remarkable thing about the Didion style in nonfiction works such as "The Year of Magical Thinking" is the effortlessness of the seduction: the ironic humor, the attention to detail, the rhythm. On a stage, an actor and dramatist have to lobby more actively for the goodwill of the people sitting in the dark, and on this occasion, the need to reach out feels like a disservice. The collaboration comes across as stilted rather than urgent. The working parts don't work impressively together.

It's not that Redgrave fails to "become" Didion. This expressive actress comes up with a credible idea of a stricken convert, compelled to spread the gospel of ashes to ashes, dust to dust. "It will happen to you," Redgrave declares in the play's first moment, speaking of the enveloping grief at the death of someone who completes you. "The details will be different," she continues, "but it will happen to you. That's what I'm here to tell you."

What happened was, on the evening of Dec. 30, 2003, Dunne slumped over in their Manhattan apartment and died shortly after of heart failure. At the same time, their daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne Michael, in her late 30s, was in a coma, suffering from pneumonia and septic shock of unknown origin.

The magical thinking is Didion's shorthand for her own reflexive coping mechanism, a sometimes paradoxical combination of denial and compulsive fact-gathering. (In the book, she reports out Dunne's death as if she were embarking on a five-part newspaper series, not only checking documents such as doctor's notes and doorman logs, but also seriously considering asking to sit in on her husband's autopsy. Wisely, she decides not to.)

We sense intuitively why this is such a necessary business for her. This is, after all, what Joan Didion does. With the eye of diarist, journalist and novelist, she takes us on a journey through the survivor's purgatory, a shifting zone of guilt and shock and loneliness and obsession. As much as Didion wants the pain to end, it seems, she also wants it to continue. Magical thinking is a way of keeping the dead with her.

Hare's production is spare, but not entirely stripped of theatricality. For most of the 90 minutes, Redgrave, in a long neutral-colored skirt, sits in a wooden chair, spinning the threads of Didion's experiences. Now and then, some faint sound of nature is heard off in the distance, as if she's on a porch, or a beach.

The more ostentatious embellishment is what you might call the vanishing backdrop. As devised by Bob Crowley, a series of canvases behind Redgrave that are adorned with abstract landscapes drop to the floor periodically. These curtains seem to fill the dramatic equivalent of pages turning -- chapters, perhaps in Didion's emotional evolution -- but they're dropped too many times. (Excess is a theme here: The play seems to end on at least three occasions.)

Watching Redgrave on a stage can hardly ever be described as a chore, even in less than ideal circumstances. Here, too, she finds plausible ways into some aspects of Didion's world. The performance is best in offhand moments, as when the actress recalls an intimate family detail, such as Quintana's explanation for why she never read her parents' work: "When you read something you make a judgment on it and you don't want to make a judgment on your mother and father."

At other times, however, "Magical Thinking" is too much like an austere alternative to "Oprah," an adaptation that replaces the supple mystique of the book with the driest kind of earnestness.

The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion. Directed by David Hare. Costumes, Ann Roth; lighting, Jean Kalman; sound, Paul Arditti. About 90 minutes. At Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St., New York. Call 212-239-6200 or visit

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