Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation is the first show to open at The Studio Theatre since Joy Zinoman, the force of nature who founded the institution in the 1970s and served as its artistic director until just weeks ago, passed the torch to David Muse. Intentional or not, the selection of this generous, sharply observed comedy to begin the Muse era feels like a tribute to Zinoman, who along with charting the theatre’s creative course was also chief instructor in its conservatory. (She plans to continue teaching.)
Circle Mirror Transformation, which Muse directed, takes place in an acting class similar to the entry-level one Studio offers. I doubt Studio would allow a teacher to have his or her spouse as a student, as in Baker’s fictional class. But given the play’s small-town rec-center setting, the scenario seems plausible even though it’s a glaring violation of the Hippocratic — I mean, the attorney-client — well, it just seems like the kind of thing that could cause problems, is all. And guess what?
Even so, Baker’s script contains more microdrama than melodrama. We follow the well-meaning expired hippie of a teacher Marty (the great Jennifer Mendenhall, bringing a warmth to a role that could easily have gone shrill) and her pupils through six weeks of the kinds of exercises would-be actors use to try to offload their self-consciousness and live in the moment: conversations built from only one or two words, monologues wherein classmates portray one another, counting to 10 as a group without stepping on your fellow’s line. These drills are necessarily repetitive. The play opens with its cast of five lying on their backs in darkness, and Muse allows the deliberate pace to sustain.
But drama — no less satisfying for its modest, human scale — begins to emerge almost immediately. Acting class, a place where all are encouraged to be vulnerable without the governing ideology of a church group or a 12-step program, is a natural incubator for conflict. Muse and his actors are smart enough not to force it but to let it emerge naturally from the contrasting speeds and goals of characters who feel real: Jeff Talbott is a hilariously wounded divorcee. MacKenzie Meehan is a sullen adolescent wondering when the “real acting” will begin, by which she means when she’ll stop having to play baseball gloves or trees. Kathleen McElfresh is a transplanted Manhattanite who attracts lots of men but only dates the creeps. And there’s Harry A. Winter as Marty’s husband, who was married once before and who would never do a thing to hurt her — intentionally.
Just as it might seem strange to praise the cast for its convincing portrayals of acting students, it might also seem a bit goofy to praise set designer Debra Booth for getting all the lived-in details right, from the never-quite-empty cubbyholes to the overgrown-with-fliers bulletin board in the hall. Booth’s stage looks a lot like the conservatory classrooms two floors above it. But this authenticity sells the illusion and enables a subtle bravura finish: In the final scene, wherein Talbott and Meehan imagine meeting 10 years in the future, the wall-spanning mirror that has been obscured by a curtain is at last exposed, giving the audience a full view of themselves behind the players. It’s a fitting end to a show that speaks slowly and quietly but says a mouthful.
Circle Mirror Transformation is at Studio Theatre through Oct. 24. This review appears in today’s Examiner.