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Connecticut Theater

"The Bay at Nice"
Hartford Stage, Hartford

Estelle Parsons is a force of nature, a one-woman tornado, as she commands the Hartford Stage in David Hare's "The Bay at Nice." Parsons takes the very juicy role of Valentina Nrovka which Hare has created and runs with it. Written in 1986, the earlier productions have featured such towering actors as Irene Worth and Zoe Caldwell, but Parsons matches the best of them. And in this production, under Michael Wilson's direction, Parsons is ably supported by three other cast members--Angelica Torn, Peter Maloney, and Corey Brill. Torn is particularly appealing as Nrovka's much-beleaguered daughter.

"The Bay at Nice" is more a character study than a full-fledged drama. The 75-minute piece takes place in 1956 at the famed Hermitage Museum in Leningrad. The Museum has just acquired a painting which may or may not be a Matisse, and Nrovka has been called in to help authenticate the piece. Nrovka, a one-time artist, had once lived in Paris and had studied with Matisse. She may or may not have been his model, may or may not have been his mistress.

The woman is larger than life. She is given to saying what is on her mind-open, direct, stinging-with no concern for the effect on her targets. She is a woman who has seen it all, from the carefree Bohemian Parisian world of the 20s to the stultifying Soviet milieu under Kruschev. There is not a sentimental bone in her body. Her relationship with her daughter Sophia reveals just how tough she is-how cynical, weary, unloving. When her daughter arrives to announce her upcoming divorce and presents her unlikely lover (a timid, bald-headed elderly man), Valentina rips them apart and scoffs at their plans. Neither is a match for Valentina.

It is difficult to imagine that such a woman would have existed in Post-Tsarist, pre Gorbachev Russia. Nrovka/Parsons is clad in a stylish black and maroon suit, heels and turbaned hat. And endowed with funds from unknown sources, she seems more a pre-Revolutionary aristocrat than a Comrade.

But why quibble over such anachronisms? More importantly, Hare has created a fascinating character, one who can be depended upon to say the unexpected. Furthermore, Hare has the opportunity, as the piece unfolds, to explore relationships which clearly fascinate him. He juxtaposes mothers and daughters, genius and mediocrity, freedom and responsibility, modern western art and Russia's social realism. In conversations which Nrovka shares with her daughter, the daughter's lover, and the museum functionary, it all comes under fire.

-- Irene Backalenick
Oct. 24, 2004

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