By Karen Isaacs
Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel is making another appearance in Connecticut thanks to the lovely production at Playhouse on Park through March 4.
Nottage, whose most recent play Sweat won the Pulitzer Prize, is a keen observer of how women navigate life and the challenges they face.
In Intimate Apparel we see four women, three of whom have learned to abandon their fantasies and make choices based on the reality of the world. Each has made a “bargain” and each longs for what she has sacrificed.
The central character, Esther, touchingly played by Darlene Hope is a seamstress who has been in New York City for 17 years, having come from South Carolina. It’s 1905 and Esther, like many of the characters is an African-American. At 35 she is afraid love has passed her by, but she will not settle for practical over romantic; when her landlady in the boarding house encourages her to consider the rotund hotel bellman (at a fancy hotel), she rejects considering the idea. She wants romance.
The other three women have settled. Mrs. Dickson the landlady, had at 37 married an older man who has since died and left her the boarding house. Mayme has become a prostitute giving up dreams of playing the piano, for the money and independence her life affords her.
Even Mrs. VanBuren the white society woman for whom Esther creates lacy undergarments, has settled. She married for status and money and now, unable to bear children, watches as her husband berates her and philanders.
It looks as though Esther may get her wish of romance. In fact, there are two possibilities but one is not likely: that is Mr. Marx the orthodox Jewish man who sells her fabric. His intended whom he has never met is still in Europe; they develop feelings for each other but though both are outsiders, it cannot be.
Her second possibility arrives in a letter from the Panama Canal Zone. It’s written by George, a Barbadian working on digging the canal. A church member has suggest he write. Esther is flustered and wonders if a “proper woman” would respond, but she does. The letters continue and grow increasingly intimate. George writes poetically and soon Esther is in love. In true Cyrano De Bergerac style, both are illiterate and their letters are written by others – in Esther case, Mayme and Mrs. Van Buren.
All this takes place in act one which ends with the wedding of Esther and George.
In act two, Esther’s dreams of a “happily ever after” life which includes using her savings to purchase a beauty salon, are not coming true. George is not the man she thought he was. Though she gives him everything he wants, he wants more and different things. He can’t or won’t find a job or accept the jobs available, instead wanting to purchase a stable with 12 horses. He wears the finest clothes, which Esther has made for him, gambles and philanders.
Esther is too proud to truly reveal what is going on to the others, but the cold reality is hitting her.
Playhouse on Park has a large stage area, surrounded by the audience on three sides; it can be difficult for a smaller play to be effective in the space. Marcus Abbott who is responsible for both the scenic and lighting design has solved the problem. He designed four distinct areas: one is Esther’s rooming house (and later her apartment), another the bedroom of Mrs. VanBuren, a third the bawdy house where Mayme works, and lastly, the tenement house where Mr. Marx sells fabric. As Esther moves between the locations, the lighting highlights the area.
Director Dawn Loveland Navarro keeps the pace of the show moving, but she can’t overcome some of its flaws: both acts are too long and repetitious. We see what is coming in each act and keep waiting and waiting for it to occur. In act one, even though I’ve seen the play before, there were at least three places where I was sure the “curtain” would go down.
Costume designer Kate Bunce does a good job with the turn of the century costumes and sound designer Joel Abbott makes effective use of ragtime.
Darlene Hope’s Esther fully realizes the determination, dreams and disillusionment of the character while also showing us her strength. It is a strong performance.
Overall the acting is very good. Ben MacLaughlin starts slowly as Mr. Marx but by the end of act one you know so much about his hopes and dreams, not through dialogue but his performance. Xenia Gray has a more one dimensional role as the landlady – the voice of practicality and reason.
Beethovan Oden has the challenging role of George; challenging because while Esther believes in him, the audience is suspicious almost from the start of the correspondence. Certainly, he is the villain in the play and he does convey a menacing nature and a calculating personality.
The other two women, Anna Laura Strider as Mrs. Van Buren and Zuri Eshun as Mayme are good as the counterpoints to Esther. With each, we do understand not only their hopes, but their compromises.
Intimate Apparel is a good, though not a great, play. You will find it engaging. For tickets, call 860-523-5900 or visit PlayouseOnPark.org.
By Karen Isaacs
Of the 40 or so shows I saw in NYC in 2017, which were my favorites
Come from Away
In 2017, I needed a show that reminded me of people’s goodness and caring. Come from Away did just that without being manipulative nor saccharine. The show combined extraordinary direction by Christopher Ashley, fine cast with Jenn Colella as a standout and a enjoyable score by Irene Sankoff and David Hein. I was delighted it was a hit.
Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.
I had missed the various off-Broadway incarnations of this show, but the one at the Imperial Theater was amazing. I loved how the theater was totally transformed into a Russian café and the cast was all around me. I thoroughly enjoyed the mixture of musical genres and was delighted with Josh Groban’s performance as the depressed and lonely Pierre. I only regretted the limited awards it won and the producers’ missteps that led to its early departure.
The Band’s Visit
David Yazbek’s score and this sweet, gentle story—though occasionally slow – again reminds us of people’s innate kindness. Plus it featured an astounding performance by Katrina Lenk.
I won’t say this is a definitive production of this classic musical, and Bette Midler may not be the perfect Dolly, but what a show it was. She is an amazing performer and the rest of the cast was able to hold own against her star power. Brava!
My runner-up Musicals
Of, the Broadway musicals that opened or were revived, I enjoyed War Paint the best. To see Patti Lupone and Christine Ebersole together was wonderful. Plus I found the score delightful.
Off-Broadway, John Kander (with new partner Greg Pierce) tackled a tough subject in Kid Victory. The return of a teen boy who was abducted and held captive by a predator before being returned to his conservative, religious family. Karen Ziemba as the mother and Jeffrey Denham as the predator were terrific.
My Top Plays
The back story of the Israeli-Palestine Peace Accords signed in 1993 might not seem made for theater, but playwright J. R. Rogers, director Barlett Sher and a top notch cast led by Jefferson Mays and Jennifer Ehle turned this into a fascinating and suspenseful drama.
I saw this play at Yale Rep and was entranced; the magic continued on Broadway with this spectacular ensemble cast and a fascinating look at a piece of forgotten American theater history.
Lynn Nottage play about blue collar workers losing their economic footing in 21st century America made me want to cry. It was real, it touched the economic issues and the personal ones. It featured another terrific ensemble cast.
A strong ensemble cast led by John Douglas Thompson and Brandon J. Dirden plus superb direction by Ruben Santiago-Hudson and a great set by David Gallo brought out all the strengths in this August Wilson play.
This revival of William Nicholson’s play about the unlikely love story between C. S. Lewis and Joy Gresham was intellectually stimulating and emotionally moving. It also featured a fine cast and set – that easily would have garnered praise on Broadway.
The Little Foxes
I saw Laura Linney as Regina and Cynthia Nixon as Birdie and wished I had also seen them in the opposite roles. They were terrific as were the entire cast including Richard Thomas as Horace. The production was both chilling in its depiction of greed and spell binding.
In the runner-up category, I’d include
Mark Ruffalo, Tony Shalhoub and Jessica Hecht were all terrific in this revival of Arthur Miller’s play, directed by Terry Kinney. I found that Danny DeVito was over-the-top as the antique dealer, detracting from the piece.
Kevin Kline made this revival a must see. He WAS the perfect actor to play Gary Essendine. Of course, the fabulous set and the strong performances by Kate Burton, Kristine Nielsen, Cobie Smulders and Bhavesh Patel added to the fun.
The Home Place
It isn’t Brian Friel’s best play, but this production at the Irish Rep was so good and focused on such interesting topics that any failings of the play were easily overlooked.
The Man from Nebraska
Pitch perfect performances by Reed Birney and Annett O’Toole as a conventional man who loses his faith and his wife, made this Tracy Lett’s play at Second Stage riveting. Lett shows us what happens when those who always follow the rules, stop doing so, but he doesn’t provide easy answers. Birney and O’Toole also did not take the easy road in their performances.
By Karen Isaacs
“Sweat” – Lynn Nottage’s new play that has transferred from off-Broadway is a chilling tale of the plight of working class people. It is a story all too familiar to residents of “the rust belt.”
A family owned industry that has provided good paying jobs with benefits for generations to the working people of a community first tries to force draconian union concessions, then locks out the workers and hires cheaper, non-union replacements, and finally, almost inevitably departs for a foreign location.
So what happens to the people on the plant floor? They, and their parents and grandparents have given their blood and their sweat to the company, making the executives rich and gaining a secure middle class life for themselves.
The play is set in Reading, Pennsylvania, mostly in the local bar where a number of the workers hang out. But it opens in 2008 in a drab, office like setting with cinder blocks walls. In two separate rooms we meet two young men: Jason and Chris, an African –American. Each is being questioned and talked to by a man, who we realize is their parole officer. Each has just gotten out of jail for an incident in 2000. Somehow these two young men – in their early twenties – know each and were both involved in the incident. Each is having difficulty adjusting to life on the outside and to getting a new start. But Jason has Aryan nation symbols tattooed on his face and neck, while Chris has almost completed his bachelor’s degree.
The play then flashes back to a series of scenes over months of 2000. Over the course of months, we see the all-too-familiar events play out. Three women hang out at the bar, celebrating birthdays and other events: Cynthia is Chris’ mother—she’s hardworking and ambitious, but married to Brucie who has fallen into addiction. Tracey is Jason’s mother; she too is hard-working but has an “attitude.” Jessie, the third friend seems more like a mediator between the two though she does tend to drink way too much. The bartender is Stan, who had worked in the plant until he was injured on the job.
This is a working class bar. People come in after work and the talk mostly is involved with the work. Brucie, Cynthia’s estranged husband, had worked at another plant until the owners demanded concessions, the union went on strike, the workers were locked out, replacements were hired, and now the company refuses to talk with the union, even though it is willing to capitulate.
In the months that follow – the same scene begins at the plant where Cynthia, Tracey and Jessie work. Even Chris and Jason get jobs there; Chris for the summer to make enough money to go to college and Jason sees it as his future.
For them, it seems like a way into middle class. For Oscar, the bar assistant who is Colombian but born in the U.S., it seems like a closed system. To get a job you have to know someone. The jobs tend to go to the families who have spent their lifetime in the plant.
The rumors begin of the plant owners asking for concessions. Then there is an opening for a supervisor which both Cynthia and Tracy apply for. Cynthia gets the job which creates a fracture between the three women. Tracey believes Cynthia was promoted because of her race.
As the rumors flow, machines begin disappearing until the day the employees are locked out. Soon replacements are hired, including Oscar.
Jason reacts with increasing anger until, one night when Oscar comes back to the bar to get his remaining things, violence occurs. Unfortunately, Stan is an unintended victim.
This is why Jason and Chris were in jail.
In the last scenes, we see what has happened to Cynthia, Tracey, Chris, Jason, Oscar and Stan, as well as Jessie.
All have suffered devastating losses.
Director Kate Whoriskey has assembled a terrific ensemble for this play and then directed them with a master’s touch. They work seamlessly as an unit. Johanna Day has, perhaps, the showiest role as Tracey who is outspoken and abrasive. She speaks her mind. Day creates a character who we are both annoyed with and sympathetic towards. Michelle Wilson gives as a Cynthia who is more refined and determined. With that determination, she and her son, Chris (played by Khris Davis) seem cut from the same cloth. You know why Chris is striving to better himself. Will Pullen’s Jason also seems so obviously related to his mother, Tracey. Pullen gives us the angry and impulsive young man whose resentment seems to ooze from every part of him.
James Colby as the bartender, Stan, is the voice of reason while John Earl Jelks as Brucie is the warning of what can and is about to happen. Carlo Albán gives us a sensitive Oscar, the outsider who just wants a piece of the dream.
The set by John Lee Beatty creates the typical neighborhood bar – a little run down – yet a place the workers feel at home. It is bolstered by the lighting by Peter Kaczorowksi, the sound by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen and the costumes by Jennifer Moeller.
Sweat is a disturbing and moving portrait of working class America today. It is at Studio 54, 254 W. 54th Street for a limited run. For tickets visit telecharge.