MAURA TIERNEY

I learned something about myself yesterday: I’m not hip. I thought otherwise, but yesterday I saw The Wooster Group’s musical play — at least, I think that’s what it was — at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York, and I realized that I am a Pod.

This play, which has been around in one form or another since 1983, is called “North Atlantic.” That’s because it is set on an American aircraft carrier, during the cold war, off the coast of the Netherlands. It’s 90 minutes long. The creators have opted for no intermission. No doubt they had in mind to maintain the continuity of the piece at which, in a certain sense, they succeeded. The piece certainly continued — so much so that 90 minutes seemed like a geologic epoch. Another benefit of eschewing a break, perhaps unintended, is that the audience stayed to the end. I know four people who would have opted for an earlier dinner at Park and Orchard.

FRANCES McDORMAND

Far from disliking experimental theater, I have always appreciated it. But then, I have always understood it. In 1969, for example, I saw Omar Shapli’s play, “Rules for the Running of Trains on the Erie Railroad to go into Effect on Jan. 1, 1882 – Section 10,” and I understood that the frenetic activity and the references to the Haymarket Riot and the reportage of Nelly Bly was painting a portrait of American life, and the hypocrisy that affected it, at the turn of the 20th century.

By contrast, at the Baryshnikov yesterday, I had no idea what was going on, and I’d wager that most of those in the theater who pretended that they did understand were embarrassed to admit the truth. The program was an unbroken stream of scrambling about, incongruous argument, unprovoked yelling, and filthy sexual repartee. The actors frequently and by design talked over each other so that any chance, however remote, that a clip of dialog here or there would make sense was conclusively thwarted. It may be apocryphal, but I heard a rumor that the playwright, James Strahs, appeared backstage in a fury after the show because he thought he had heard a coherent sentence.

A scene from "North Atlantic"

This play, which has been revised and revived several times over the decades, is offered as a spoof of programs such as, say, “South Pacific,” that portray life in the military. If I hadn’t learned better, I’d have thought that it was a sophomoric attempt at best. The constant stream of graphic references to penises and vaginae and variations of intercourse sounded more like a spoof of the conversations in the locker room at Passaic Valley High School, say around 1958. It turns out, though — as it frequently does in my life — that I was on the outside looking in. The critic in the Los Angeles Times, commenting on the West Coast run of this revival, said so in so many words: “The piece navigates in a zone that will be a delight to devoted fans and avant-garde hipsters but will probably leave ordinary theatergoers dog-paddling to safety.”

All this time, I thought I was an avant-garde hipster, whereas I was actually the duffer flapping around at the shallow end of the pool.

I have only myself to blame for this rather expensive faux pas. I talked my companions into seeing this play because Maura Tierney was in the cast. My wife and I had seen her two previous appearances on New York stages, and I didn’t think we needed any more evidence than her magnetic presence in those plays and my general conviction that she is a fine actress. It wasn’t discouraging at all to also note that Oscar winner and Tony nominee Frances McDormand is in the ensemble.

I’m going to see Boyd Gaines in A.J. Gurney’s play “Sylvia” later this week. It’s about a man who brings home a stray dog he finds in a park. I think I’ll understand it.

Some of the players in "North Atlantic"


MAURA TIERNEY

MAURA TIERNEY

In catching up on the news today, I learned — a few days after everyone else, it seems — that Maura Tierney has withdrawn from NBC’s projected new series “Parenthood.” The speculation is that Helen Hunt, another wonderful actress, will replace her.

NBC had postponed the debut of the series when Tierney was diagnosed with cancer. She has already had surgery, but has put aside the series in order to accommodate her further treatment.

Like everyone else, I hope she fully recovers. I almost feel selfish in my disappointment that she won’t be on a series this season. I had reserved “Parenthood” for the only series I’d watch, and that was only because Maura Tierney was in it.

While I’m thinking of myself, I’m also looking forward to her resuming her career, because I hope she does a lot more on the stage. We got a chance to see her in her two off-Broadway projects, and found her to be a natural in the theater. That magnetism that works so well for her on television is even more potent in the intimacy of an off-Broadway house.

May God bless her and make her well.

MAURA TIERNEY

MAURA TIERNEY

I was sorry to read this week that Maura Tierney is ill. The nature of her illness has not been disclosed, as far as I know, and that is a good thing – especially in view of the recent excesses in the reporting on the illnesses and deaths of Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson. If Maura Tierney can keep the details of her health to herself — or at least be allowed to reveal them when, how, and if she chooses, there may still be a chance for civilization.

Her illness will cause an eight-week delay in production of “Parenthood,” an NBC project that is based on a 1989 film by that name. I am not a big television fan, but I was a devotee of “ER,” and Maura Tierney was one reason for that. With “ER” off the air, I have been left with “Seinfeld” reruns, baseball in season, Charlie Rose, and the occasional film on American Movie Classics. My sense is that if Maura Tierney thinks “Parenthood” is a worthwhile project, it will be worth a look.

I hope the fact that Tierney has signed on to another television series doesn’t mean she won’t pursue her stage career. She has appeared in two off-Broadway shows — Neil LaBute’s “Some Girl(s)” in 2006 and Nicky Silver’s “Three Changes” in 2008. We saw both — particularly because Tierney was in the casts. I don’t know how these plays were received critically, but they clearly established that Tierney has a feel for the stage and can make a live audience accept her character — in fact, to want more of it.

MAURA TIERNEY Wireimage Photo

MAURA TIERNEY Wireimage Photo

There’s something quirky — one might almost say broken — about Tierney, and from what I’ve read it isn’t an act. It certainly is appealing. She evidently doesn’t lack for composure, however, because she apparently is a good poker player. That fits with one aspect of her genius as an actress — her ability to project a wide range of emotions with a much narrower range of expressions. We saw that often in “ER,” and it also serves her well on stage. In fact, one of the way she fascinates me is by so often making me wonder, “What is she really thinking.”

Be well, Maura Tierney.