'Apologia' at the Roundabout Theatre: Talky, unpersuasive, annoying

(Left to right:) Hugh Dancy, Talene Monahon, and Stockard Channing in "Apologia" at the Roundabout Theatre Company in New York.

Stockard Channing stars in Apologia, a play by Alexi Kaye Campbell now at the Roundabout Theatre. As Kristin Miller, an American living in England, Channing is an internationally known art historian whose life has been devoted to political activism. She would be quick to explain that apologia means “a formal, written defense of one’s opinions or conduct. … Not to be confused with an apology.” Dramatic events may prove otherwise.  Channing does the intellectual bitch to a T.

The occasion for the play’s family gathering is Kristin’s birthday party. The set-up is that Kristin’s memoir has just been published, an autobiography in which she does not mention her two sons. Their reactions to this erasure — an echo of her abandonment of them as children — are the engine of the show.

Hugh Dancy co-stars, playing both her grown sons; in Act 1 he is Peter, a 35-year-old banker who has brought his girlfriend Trudi (Talene Monahon), a Christian evangelical naïf who is annoying and judgmental  and faux-wise (and, of course, American, given the playwright’s obvious anti-American bias). In Act 2, Dancy plays Simon,the other brother, a damaged, troubled man whose partner, Claire (Megalyn Echikunwoke), arrives to the party before him. She is a television soap star, who is wearing a fantastically expensive white designer dress — she has “splashed out” on it — just about announcing a soon-to-come accident with the red wine.

Also present is Hugh (John Tillinger), the requisite old gay friend of Kristin's whose reminiscences about their protests and marches fill in the past.

A soap opera aspiring to tragedy, Apologia is a very talky, very literary script with lots of embedded metaphors and much blatant foreshadowing: men as buildings during an earthquake; a mix-up of phones, where infidelity is revealed; the female significance of a tribal mask; a long disquisition on Giotto and humanism versus religion.

Channing is a commanding presence brought low by her son’s question, one he has waited his whole life to ask: “Why did this woman have children if she wasn’t prepared to do the job properly?”

Nothing about this production is fully convincing, not its exploration of the political life as important and meaningful, not the clash of styles among the three women (Channing looks way too good to be an old hippie who would find Claire’s birthday present, a face cream promising “transformative rejuvenation,” funny), not the impossibly articulate speeches and writerly vocabulary in their dialogue. 

What a bunch of annoying characters these are, offering a tired debate that leads nowhere.

Roundabout Theatre Company at the Laura Pels Theatre, 111 W. 46th Street, New York.