Yvonne Korshak reviews Off-Broadway, Broadway, Film and Art

Tag: Lynn Nottage

Review | Intimate Apparel | By Lynn Nottage | Bay Street Theatre, Sag Harbor, Long Island

… spinning a play from a photograph …

Intimate Apparel is a good play, worth seeing, though it’s not a you-must-see-it play like Lynn Nottage’s Ruined (2008) or her more recent Sweat, both of which won the Pulitzer Prize. Nottage is a fine, intelligent playwright and to spend the evening with her through the medium of this play, written early in her career (2003), is satisfying and thought-provoking.

For Intimate Apparel, the playwright’s imagination spins off from a vintage photograph of an African American seamstress in New York City in 1905, and other photos of African American women of the time.  The central character, Esther (Kelly McCreary), a quiet, hard-working African American who lives in Mrs. Dickson’s (Portia) boarding house in New York City and sews fine lingerie for wealthy white women.

Though inward and retiring, Esther has friends, including the motherly Mrs. Dickson, and the prostitute and would-be serious pianist, Mayme (Shayna Small).  And Esther’s open to conversation, as with Mr. Marks (Blake DeLong), the orthodox Jewish fabric seller on the lower East Side from whom she buys her silks.

But Esther feels alone.  And at thirty-five, she feels the passage of time and slipping away of opportunities.

In the charming and endearing irony of the play, this quiet, modest-dressing, no frills woman who makes fancy lingerie for other women is longing for love.

Until a dark-skinned Hispanic man, George (Edward O’Bienis) a laborer working on the Panama Canal, starts writing to her from Panama.  As in Athol Fugard’s play Blood Knot, the correspondence between a lonely man and woman who don’t otherwise know each other becomes increasingly romantic and sexually tinged. And like Zachariah in Blood Knot, Esther is illiterate, so she has to turn to someone else to hold up her side of the correspondence: her letters are written by her customer, the wealthy white woman, Mrs. Van Buren (Julia Motyka) for whom Esther sews beribboned bustiers with waist-cinching drawstrings.  In some fine staging, George, spot lit, proclaims his side of this correspondence in a rough Anthony Quinn-like voice from various points in the aisles of the theater.

“I love you,” he finally says, and — we sense his opportunism — makes his way from Panama to New York.

Once they meet, how will they live up to each others’ expectations?

Act I has many touching and illuminating moments – for awhile I thought we were on board for a great play.  The second act, however, is overloaded with coincidence and some unconvincing characterizations.  It provides some pleasant and original surprises among the sad inevitabilities, but doesn’t always ring true.

The actors for the most part do justice to the complexities of Nottage’s richly written characters.  Kelly McCreary reveals the passionate determination of modest Esther although at times her inwardness becomes a mask-like lack of expression. Edward O’Biennis brings out George’s mix of awareness of decency and brutal self-centeredness.  Julia Motyka as Mrs. Van Buren shows us the unsettled tension in this woman who seems to have it all, though the playwright throws in a red herring about the nature of her conflicts.  Blake DeLong conveys well Mr. Marks’ tender and remarkable inner conflicts.  Portia’s Mrs. Dickson is a woman of welcome humor who will never let you down.  Shayna Small, though she speaks too softly for the size of the theater, is a sweet Mayme.

The plays by Lynn Nottage that I know, Ruined (2008) and the more recent Sweat, both — with some staging detours — unroll fundamentally in the single space of a bar where the characters come and go and the story unfurls.  In Intimate Apparel, we move around and I missed the effective unity of place of the other plays.  On the other hand, in this play, a central bed is a visual unifying focus: it’s slept in, argued on, made, unmade and remade according to dramatic locale.  The focus on the central bed underlines the issues of love and sex in Esther’s life, and by implication, the traditional centrality of “the bed” in women’s life in general.

Intimate Apparel is set in an historical context, with the photograph of the Black seamstress in 1905 a projected image, but the play seems more interested in Esther’s emotional odyssey than in her time and place.  The effects of Esther’s race on her life, and on her relationship to the White Mrs. Van Buren, are certainly made clear.  The historical note in the program lets us know that in the period there were considerably more African American women than African American men in New York City, providing a context for Esther’s romance through correspondence.  But issues of gender and private life, even more than the larger vistas of cruelty, injustice and race of Nottage’ better known plays, are the focus of Intimate Apparel.  It is indeed an intimate play.

Intimate Apparel is directed by Scott Shwartz, the Artistic Director of Bay Street Theater.  It plays at the Bay Street Theater, on the wharf in Sag Harbor, Long Island, NY, through July 30, 2017.  For more information and tickets, click here.

Review | Sweat | By Lynn Nottage | Directed by Kate Whoriskey | Studio 54

… losers and losers …

Sweat is not a perfect play but it’s important and by the end has great impact. As this drama unfolds, we witness through the lives of engaging individuals how competition for jobs poisons relationships between ethnic and racial groups and, most poignantly, between friends.  The backdrop is the total disregard of industry and “Wall Street” for the individuals who support them.

The story, set in Reading Pennsylvania, once a heavy industry town, moves back and forth between 2000 and 2008.  We first meet two anguished young men, an agitated Evan and enraged Jason in tense, separate interrogations with their probation officer – they’ve just been released from jail, and the rest of the play tells us how they got there.  Evan is a big, solid-looking Black hoping to find solace in the Bible.  Jason is a skinny pale White with a swastika on his sleeve – he’s come out of prison as a White Supremacist.  And yet we learn when after their recent release they ran into each other in town, they embraced, a paradox central to the play’s meaning.

Much of the action takes place in a bar when, through flashbacks, when the bar was a hangout for a local factory workers who formed a bar family for one another.  Cynthia., Evans’ Black mother and Tracey, Jason’s White mother are specially tight friends in the early years.  They share long experience at the assembly line, pride in their well-paid job in the factory their families worked for generations, fatigue, gripes, and pleasure in celebrating birthdays at the bar.

The snake in the garden comes when Management announces an opening in supervisory position, and a willingness to consider Cynthia and Tracey for the job.  Off the line and into a supervisory position – what a wonderful promotion for Cynthia or Tracey that would be!

But winners create losers: when one of the two actually wins the job, friendship shatters into a bitter outcome.  Early on, the closeness between Cynthia and Tracey seems racially idyllic but as that relationship dissipates, the race war and class war of the world at large are fought out in the microcosm of the bar, with brutal results.  It’s not just about Blacks and White’s, Nottage reminds us:  the victim count includes Stan, the White manager of the bar who’s an earlier victim of the factory owners’ disregard, and the Puerto Rican cleaner, Oscar.  And in the ultimate irony, the “winner” of the competition for the supervisory job turns out to be a loser, too – a tool manipulated by the factory owners who are exporting jobs to Mexico.  Assembly line workers are fired and who does it? … well, somebody has to do their dirty work.

A strength of this play is the thoroughgoing examination of the tragic effects on individual lives of the factory system and of Wall Street.  The inherently exploitive and non-humanistic character of capitalism and its hand maiden, economic competition, are exemplified through the characters’ many different kinds of wounds and defeats, physical and spiritual:  incarceration, drug addiction, alcoholism, family breaks, crippling bodily injuries, disillusionment, obstacles in the path toward worthy goals, and severe bodily injuries.  The play is a political critique but one expressed through vivid human lives:  the personal tragedies, and small triumphs emerge out of the situations and interactions of the three-dimensional characters with which Nottage populates the bar.

Although the play moves cleverly through time, with the set shifting from the probation office to the bar, the first act feels static.  The exposition isn’t well handled: some of the characters give preachy speeches that tell us what we should know and think rather than show us.  And the bar fly, Jessie, seems to have no role to play outside of softening what could be an over simple focus on the two mothers, Tracey and Cynthia.  The play comes alive in the second act where the varying outcomes unfold and the “lesson” of the outcomes of unbridled economic competition are driven home through what happens to the characters who are most central:  Tracey and Cynthia, and to Jason, Chris, Stan, and the rest, who’d once seemed like a family.  All of them are accounted for in important ways.

The cast is uniformly excellent, and among some of the major characters, Johanna Day’s Tracy, the White woman with an embittered sense of entitlement, is totally   convincing.   Michelle Wilson is exciting as the impassioned go-getter, Cynthia, though talky portions of the script sometimes get in the way of her naturalism.  Khris Davis is moving as the young Black man with a hopeful future vision.  Wiry Will Pullen conveys a sense of risk from the get-go as Jason, the White kid with the scary tattoos.  With the set designed by John Lee Beatty, the occasional transitions between the stern venues such as the probation office and the cozy bar have emotional impact.

Lynn Nottage’s earlier play, Ruined (reviewed here) – is also set in a bar, in a tradition that can easily be traced back to Eugene O’Neil’s The Iceman Cometh.  Nottage writes honestly, and in both of these plays, she gives us characters we care about, and then forces us to look at the horrors inflicted on these powerless people we’ve come to love by dehumanized institutions – war in Ruined, and, here, capitalism.  She’s not sentimental but still manages to make the plays seem upbeat and just plain enjoyable. She’s honest in what she lays out about the institutions she writes about, but emotionally lets us off the hook.  In Sweat, the last line, which can be interpreted in different ways, provides a great deal of relief for our concerns for Cynthia and Tracy, Chris and Jason, and the others.

Sweat not only drives home the grim effects of capitalism and “Wall Street,” but it makes the audience feel good.  You’re left with a gratifying the sense that by understanding the truths Nottage lays out – by getting it — you’re now on the side of the angels helping to solve the problems!

As Jake says at the end of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

Sweat plays at Studio 54 on West 54th Street in Manhattan .  For more information and tickets, click here.

Review | Ruined by Lynn Nottage | Directed by Kate Whoriskey | Manhattan Theatre Club

… This house is a home …

Ruined brings us to a cafe-bar-whorehouse in the Congo, an oasis in the midst of war between “government” and “rebels”.  As in Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage, on which this play is loosely based, it doesn’t matter who’s fighting — the effect on the little people struggling to survive is the same no matter which violent-prone combatants they encounter and will be the same no matter who wins.

Mama Nadi runs her place and her prostitutes with a firm hand.  She’s an unsentimental, bottom-line realist, using as whores the girls who are victims of sexual exploitation — mass and ongoing rapes — by soldiers, and then expelled by their kin as dishonored.  She offers them a place and a living.  Most of the time they keep in mind that they have no choice and are grateful — but thoughts of sweeter and more decent possibilities sometimes overwhelm them.  It’s a brutal story, and a real one in the sense of being based on the playwright’s interviews with victimized Congo women.

The play thus tells an important story, and has well written and acted confrontations between determined characters.

BUT … A problem is that Mama Nadi’s seems too nice a place.  In between the terrible things that happen in front of your eyes, you begin to feel that — like the girls — you could do worse than be here.  In Mother Courage everybody’s so hungry, the last time I saw it I came out hungry — oh for some warm soup!  Mama provides food and shelter, in critically short supply in Brecht’s play.  She and her girls, and the repeat visitors form a family, like the denizens of O’Neill’s bar in The Iceman Cometh.  Mama’s strength, conveyed with an all embracing vitality by Saidah Arrika Ekulona, is reassuring.  The set is lit by a golden gleam, reflecting off the piano-polished stage floor.  Everything’s in good repair — the ramshackle bar is painted over in pretty pastels.  The play takes up violence in terms of war, gender, and conventions of honor, but until violence directly intrudes, Mama’s place seems benign.  AIDS and other STD’s, in this play about prostitutes and soldiers in Africa, are never mentioned.  None of the girls is on drugs and none is alcoholic.  If war didn’t intrude here, what would happen to these girls anyway in ten years?  Ruined doesn’t ask that.

Thus, in spite of horrific events, the overall mood is so upbeat the play is ultimately sentimental.  In this it differs mightily from Journeys, recently produced in NYC and reviewed by me here, which like Ruined tells violence-plagued stories of women from around the world based on interviews, without the rosy glow.  Ruined lets the audience leave with one of Brecht’s “happy endings, nice and easy” — without the irony.  Brecht doesn’t paint in pastel colors.

Ruined, however, draws dramatic strength from its fully drawn and realized characters and fine cast.  The play shines a light on the worst aspects of humanity, on much in between, and also on the best, particularly in the character of Christian, a purveyor of goods who loves Mama Nadi, and whose poetic and persistent character is beautifully played by Russell G. Jones.  The three girls we follow (we never see hide nor hair of the seven or eight others who are said to be there which is a real flaw in this play) have distinct personalities and their stories are moving and emblematic:  Condola Rashad as the sensitive, maimed Sophie, Quincy Tyler Bernstine as Salina who must forget the past, and Cherise Booth who … don’t miss her dancing!

Ruined is easier to take than it should be  — perversely it turns out to be a pleasant evening of theater.

Ruined plays at NY City Center Stage 1 in midtown Manhattan, through April 19th, 2009.

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