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Making its US debut, Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art is complex yet accessible. It operates on several levels, overstuffed with insight and meta-commentary. In its play within a play, characters discuss the difficulty of adapting theater. Another actor plays an actor who complains his role is too boring. An ambitious concept like this offers Bennett, whose The History Boys is similarly droll, and his cast a terrific showboating opportunity. Like an amusing magazine article, the play is a funny intellectual exercise that never establishes an emotional core.

Already full with clutter, the stage is not yet finished. A sign reads “SINK” where a sink is supposed to be, and a staircase leads to the piano frame made of plywood from Cut My Plastic. This is the rehearsal space for “Caliban’s Day,” a fictional play about a fictional encounter between poet WH Auden and composer Benjamin Britten, who really were former lovers (the stage is Auden’s office). The director of “Caliban’s Day” is in Leeds for a conference, so he instructs the cast to have a read-through in his absence.

During the read-through, the actors experiment with deliveries and question the playwright, who has made some dubious choices. When they’re not stand-ins for high-concept pomp, the stage manager and her assistant serve as a buffer between the writer and the actors.  The tension is heated and good-natured (mostly).  Between tantrums and unexpected costume changes, “Caliban’s Day” plunges into the work of its real-life subjects, as well as their sexual appetites. By the time they finish the rehearsal, everyone has a better idea of what they’re trying to say.

With multiple planes of reality, The Habit of Art is like Inception for people who like ribaldry and discussions of Thomas Mann. Also like Christopher Nolan’s thriller, the play is easier to understand than it is to explain. There is a never any question when the actors break character to ask a question or offer a snide remark. The play’s structure, dense as it is, is a means for Bennett to combine scatological humor and the highbrow. Auden has a lengthy talk about penises with an uneducated rent-boy. Later, Britten confesses to Auden his adaptation of Death in Venice is a thinly-veiled exploration of his own obsession with young boys.

The real-life actors could have lost the audience, but without exception, they handle the material with wit and energy. Ted Van Griethuysen plays Fitz, the actor who portrays Auden, with infectiously boorish intelligence. As Fitz debates the playwright (Wynn Harmon), Van Griethuysen’s performance serves as commentary on the struggles and vulnerabilities of acting. Paxton Whitehead, who you may recognize as the snobby professor from Back to School, is pitch-perfect as Henry/Britten. His one-liners are razor sharp, and his workmanlike approach is a deliberate contrast to Van Griethuysen, who seems to live and die with each performance.

The younger actors are equally comfortable with dual roles. I have a feeling Cameron Folmar may become an audience favorite. As Donald, the actor playing biographer Humphrey Carpenter, he  gripes about how his character is merely a device. He tries to remedy the problem with a campy rewrite, and Folmar – as well as Donald – are impressive in their fearlessness. But Tim (Randy Harrison), who plays the rent-boy within “Caliban’s Day,” has the most thematically important role. He articulates how biography whitewashes sex workers like himself, and Tim (the actor) shows the most enthusiasm over getting inside his character. At varying ages, these men realistically reflect how time and experience inform their craft. While the playwright frets and the stage managers gently coerce, the actors who play actors stunningly convey multiple meanings, often within the same line.

The title “The Habit of Art” refers to the will of creative people, and how they must tread through duds and masterpieces alike. The title could also refer to Bennett himself, who writes with more brains than heart. It could describe director David Muse, whose thoughtful details add realism and little empathy. In a cerebral way, it’s fun to figure out all the obscure references and see how one actor’s early complaint adds nuance to a later speech. With all its histrionics (a word the play uses often), The Habit of Art seems more fun to rehearse than perform. Because the play is about and by creative people, it is for them, too. Fun as it is to watch, this one may not even require an audience.

The Habit of Art is at The Studio Theatre until October 16. Buy tickets here!

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