Review: In ‘The Rest I Make Up,’ a Playwright’s Life as Memories Ebb

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Try as it might, sadness still can’t get the best of “The Rest I Make Up,” a lyrical and lovingly made documentary about the playwright María Irene Fornés, which recalls her career and follows her over several bittersweet years as Alzheimer’s steals her memories.

Born in 1930, Ms. Fornés came to the United States from Cuba as a teenager and made her way to New York. Self-taught, she went on to write dozens of avant-garde plays (one of them a Pulitzer Prize finalist) that garnered plenty of productions and awards. Her friends included Susan Sontag, who was, for a time, her lover.

Edward Albee, Ellen Stewart and other theater notables reflect on Ms. Fornés’s work, and clips from her plays are shown along with old photographs and film footage. Those are valuable, but none are as rewarding as when the camera returns to Ms. Fornés, whose every utterance sounds poetic yet unpretentious, even as her disease progresses.

Michelle Memran, directing her first feature, has long been friends with Ms. Fornés and their affection is evident. Yet the cinematography — credited to Ms. Memran and three others — sometimes distracts with shaky camerawork and awkward angles; potentially interesting facts about the playwright are also left unexplored. This is a free-form glimpse of Ms. Fornés, not a strict account of her accomplishments.

Still, “The Rest I Make Up” remains a fine ode to the excitement that Off Off Broadway theater once generated, and a wistful look at an ailing artist as she contemplates her life. (A chance meeting between Ms. Fornés and the playwright John Guare, filmed on the street, is particularly poignant, as is a trip to visit her family in Havana.) Regrettably, the present brings difficulties for Ms. Fornés. But those seem outweighed by so many past joys.

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