21 December 2015

'Night is a Room'

[As I disclosed on my post for Incident at Vichy on 16 December,  my computer suffered a serious malfunction just as I was starting that report.  The extensive delay caused me to push the Incident report and this one on Night is a Room back.  It’s always my intention to get my performance reports on line while the shows are still in theaters, but unfortunately, Naomi Wallace’s Night has closed now.  I apologize again to ROTters and I hope you all get some benefit from the belated reports nonetheless.  ~Rick]
Have you ever heard of GSA?  Not the Girl Scouts of America or the General Services Administration, the government agency that runs the fed’s physical plant—buildings, vehicles, and whatnot.  This GSA stands for genetic sexual attraction—and it’s not the same as “chemistry” when we talk about relationships (see Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls discussing with Sarah Brown how to recognize love in “I’ll Know”: “Mine will come as a surprise to me / Mine I leave to chance and chemistry”).  GSA is defined in Wikipedia as “sexual attraction between close relatives, such as siblings or half-siblings, a parent and offspring, or first and second cousins, who first meet as adults.”  Apparently, it’s a thing!  And Naomi Wallace has written a play about it.

The play is Night is a Room, which my theater partner, Diana, and I saw on the evening of Friday, 4 December, at the Pershing Square Signature Center on Theatre Row.  Night was Wallace’s third and last production in Signature’s Residency One term and the production, directed by Bill Rauch (artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival since 2007), was the play’s world première.  (Her previous residency productions at Signature were And I and Silence, 2014, and The Liquid Plain, 2015.)  Wallace took her title from William Carlos Williams’s 1921 poem “Complaint,” which has a line that reads: “Night is a room / darkened for lovers.”  (Wallace has used lines from poems as titles for many of her plays.  The only other Wallace play I’ve seen, One Flea Spare, which I saw at the Public Theater in 1996, takes its title from John Donne’s “The Flea,” published in 1633.  As with Night, the poems often don’t seem to have anything to do with the plays or their themes.  “Complaint,” for instance, is about a doctor—which was Williams’s other profession—paying a house call on a patient.)  Night started previews in the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre on 3 November and opened on 22 November; the première closed on 20 December (after a week’s extension).

Naomi Wallace was born in Prospect, Kentucky, in 1960.  She lives part of the time in Kentucky and part with her husband and family in Yorkshire, England.  Best known as a playwright, Wallace is also a poet and screenwriter; she also composes adaptations of novels for the stage (William Wharton’s Birdy, Harvest by Jim Crace of the U.K., Returning to Haifa by Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani, Palestinian-American playwright’s The Corpse Washer).  She’s been called “a dedicated advocate for justice and human rights in the U.S. and abroad, and for Palestinian rights in the Middle East” and was detained by Homeland Security in 2007 for travelling to Cuba. 

Most of the dramatist’s plays before Night have been non-realistic in style—appearances of ghosts and dead children “always seem to end up in my plays,” Wallace quippedand were drawn from “stories outside of myself, and often in histories that have not been brought to light.”  Her works are praised less for their narrative strength than for the lyricism of her writing (which one reviewer noted “arguably serves as a protective shield against a clear-eyed assessment of their structure.”)  The new script, she said, is based on a story “that was actually told to me” and she thought, “I must write a play about this story someday.”  Some years later, when French producer Anne Terrail (granddaughter of Jack L. Warner of Warner Bros.) commissioned her to write a new play, she returned to the dark tale she’d heard.  (Night is a Room was first read in English in Paris, but not produced there.) 

Though Wallace acknowledges that she’s “not part of the mainstream” of American dramatists and has “never had what one would call a big ‘hit,’” her work is produced in the United Kingdom, Europe, the United States, and the Middle East.  Her produced plays include (alongside those staged at Signature) In the Heart of America, Slaughter City, One Flea Spare, The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek, Things of Dry Hours, The Fever Chart: Three Visions of the Middle East, and The Hard Weather Boating Party.  Her adaptation of Birdy premièred in London in 1997; in 2009, One Flea Spare was made a permanent part of the repertoire of the Comédie-Française.  Films for which Wallace wrote or co-wrote the screenplays include Lawn Dogs, The War Boys, Flying Blind (with Bruce McLeod).  The playwright has won the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize (twice), Joseph Kesselring Prize, Fellowship of Southern Writers Drama Award, an Obie Award (for One Flea Spare, 1996-97), and the 2012 Horton Foote Award for most promising new American play (The Liquid Plain).  She’s also a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship in 2013 and a 2014 National Endowment for the Arts development grant.  In 2013, Wallace received the inaugural Windham Campbell Prize for drama and in 2015, an Arts and Letters Award in Literature.  Wallace has taught English literature, poetry, and playwriting at Yale University, UCLA, University of Iowa, Illinois State University, Merrimack College, Hampshire College, American University of Cairo, and Vrije University of Amsterdam, among other institutions.  

Night, set in Leeds, England, tells the story of Liana and Marcus, who have a marriage that seems idyllic.  Liana’s a 43-year-old über-competent account executive in an advertising firm and Marcus, about to turn 40, is an admired and popular history teacher at a girls’ school.  In the opening scene, Liana, chicly dressed in all black, is paying a call on Doré, a  dowdy 55-year-old housekeeper who’s lived in the same house for 41 years.  (Clint Ramos’s spot-on costumes delineate the class distinctions among the characters instantly.)  She’s grown used to an isolated existence in her modest home, single and without any family.  The surprise, which Wallace teases out in controlled blasts of information, is that Doré is Marcus’s birth mother; she was forced to give him up for adoption when she was 15 and hasn’t seen him since.  What Liana wants is to effect a reunion between her husband, whose adoptive parents are deceased, and his mother as a surprise for his 40th birthday.  Doré balks at first—“It’s not a good idea,” advises Doré, especially not as a surprise—but Liana insists she’s worked it all out.  She won’t be present, however: better to let mother and son meet privately for the first time.  

The actual reunion takes place between the first and second scenes of act one.  By all indications, it was a smashing success, though Liana is entirely outside this loop; three months later, Liana and Marcus are waiting for Doré to pay her first visit to their house.  The living room is practically empty of furnishings because the house is being redecorated—only a couple of chairs and a small side table are available for the couple and their guest; everything else is in storage.  (The carefully detailed sets were by Rachel Hauck.)  Doré is not the only topic of conversation while the couple wait; they talk about their adult daughter, Dominique, who’s in Chicago studying art, and their respective jobs (it turns out that Marcus doesn’t like his teaching gig as much as Liana thought).  And they take a break in the chat for an explicit (though clothed) interlude of spontaneous sex.  (More about this I won’t say in case anyone has a chance to see the play in the future.  I will, however, observe that Night is the third play I’ve seen this season in which a man gets a woman off on stage—two orally and one manually—with both participants fully clothed.  Is this a trend?).  In any case, Doré arrives, nicely (though not elegantly, by any means) dressed and coiffed this time, and Liana serves tea and cake. 

It doesn’t take long before it becomes obvious that everything’s not quite what Liana had predicted from her little surprise, and mother and son reveal that they’ve been spending almost all the time since the meeting together and that they seem to have an awful lot in common beneath the surface—dreams and longings and obsessions.  (Doré’s taken to calling her son Jonathan, the name she gave him at birth, because, she asserts, he prefers it.)  Again, I don’t want to go into detail here, but my introduction may be a broad hint at what develops by the end of the hour-and-a-quarter first act.  (Apparently the press were all asked not to mention this subject in their reviews—but I’m not the press and this isn’t a review.)  I’ll only say now that the seemingly perfect marriage of Marcus and Liana dissolves in acrimony, yelling, and recriminations.  (If Dominique hadn’t telephoned in the middle of the scene, I might have assumed this was a latter-day redux of George and Martha of Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf? moved ahead a half century and transported to England.) 

Act two takes place at a funeral home just after the memorial.  The chamber is filled with empty chairs all facing stage left where a wooden coffin sits on a stand.  My assumption—and I suspect most other viewers’ as well—was that Doré had died in the intervening years (it’s six, we learn).  That turns out to be incorrect, but I won’t say who has died for the same reasons I wouldn’t reveal Wallace’s other surprises.  The shorter second act, I will tell you, is a confrontation between the two survivors that vacillates between bitter anger and resignation, but comes to no real conclusion or resolution.  Wallace constructs a fraught situation in act one, which struck me as contrived to start with, and then leaves it unresolved in a frustrating ending—the play really just stops—that competes with the finale of TV’s The Sopranos.

My only recollection of my reaction to One Flea Spare is that I didn’t really get what Wallace was saying.  That’s how I left Night is a Room as well.  I just said that I found the set-up contrived—I mean, who in her right mind would spring an unannounced meeting with his estranged birth mother on her husband as a surprise birthday gift?—but that’s not all that bothered me.  After the second scene of act one, which ends with the split of Liana and Marcus, the whole of act two seemed tacked-on.  This is especially so since Wallace didn’t tie anything up with the second act; it was more a coda than a conclusion.  The drama ended at intermission.  (It seems that Night wouldn’t be the first time Wallace wrote a run-on play: she explains that she jettisoned the entire third act of The Liquid Plain when it was accepted for production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival after Rauch, who was to direct the première at OSF, told the playwright he didn’t like it.  Wallace admitted that “the third act wasn’t necessary at all.”)  As we left the theater, and Diana wondered what might have impelled Wallace to write Night is a Room; I said that it felt to me as if she’d either run across a mention of GSA or had heard a story like the one she composed and decided it’d make a good basis for a play—as opposed to having an idea of something to say and finding a vehicle that could express it.  It turns out my second hypothesis was what had happened—and it shows: the story came first; the point came as an afterthought (if at all).  Usually, I’ve found, that doesn’t work so well.  QED.

Rauch, whose previous work I haven’t seen (he brought All the Way, Robert Schenkkan’s play about Lyndon Johnson that starred Bryan Cranston, to Broadway from OSF last year, where it had débuted two years earlier), did a creditable job with the staging, keeping the two-hour, two-act play moving even without a great deal of action, and for the most part, he coaxed good performances from his three-person cast.  The fact that little of either the circumstances or the characters was fully believable was more Wallace’s fault than Rauch’s—although he wasn’t able in the end to paper over the deficiencies. 

It didn’t help that, with the play set in Leeds, a blue-collar city in Yorkshire north of London, Rauch had a cast of American actors.  Even with the help of dialect coach Charlotte Fleck (who worked on Signature’s other two Wallace productions as well), none of the three managed a believable or consistent accent.  As Liana, whom the writer says is the first role she’s written for an “upper-class woman,” Dagmara Dominczyk was going for proper Oxbridge speech and Bill Heck, as Marcus, was in the same ballpark (maybe that should be “cricket pitch”), while for Doré, Ann Dowd tried for a northern English accent.  (We’re somewhat familiar with Yorkshire accents from some of the many British series broadcast over here.  PBS’s popular series Downton Abbey, for instance, is set in Yorkshire so many of the servants and village residents speak in that accent.)  None of them quite got it, and what they did manage often slipped noticeably.  (I can’t see any dramatic reason to have set the play in Leeds.  Why not just Americanize the setting and ditch the accents altogether?)

Aside from the dialect problem, the acting was competent, with Dowd standing out both for the complexity of her character and for the way the actor depicted it.  I’d never seen Dowd on stage before (she also has quite a list of film and TV credits), but I gather from the buzz that she’s highly regarded and popular with both audiences and press; I can see why.  Doré is the kind of role that requires a good deal of character-actor skill to pull off.  She shifts from mousy and uncertain, seemingly lost and oblivious, to sharp and knowing, strong and even manipulative, and finally to commanding, almost imperious.  Dowd made it all entirely credible, while at the same time keeping the unforeshadowed developments surprising.  We may not be able to see the shifts coming, but when Dowd engineers them, they seem wholly natural—as if the character were a kind of living matryoshka doll discarding each outer persona to reveal a more self-confident one beneath.  (Most of the time, the bothersome accent issue isn’t even noticeable, overwhelmed by Dowd’s tour-de-force acting.)

Bill Heck seemed an ill fit for Marcus.  I remember him as the stand-in for playwright Horton Foote’s father in Signature’s monumental presentation of The Orphans’ Home Cycle in 2010 in which he was exceptional.  (Heck was also impressive as the sexually confused Mormon Republican in STC’s Angels in America later that same year.  I reported on both productions on ROT: 25 and 28 February 2010 and 11 December 2010, respectively.)  In Night, the actor just didn’t seem comfortable in the role and there was little chemistry between Heck’s Marcus and Dominczyk’s Liana, a couple who are supposed to have a sexually heated marriage long after the honeymoon.  (I can’t say there was much connection between Heck’s son and Dowd’s mother, either, but since that relationship is so peculiar to start with, I’m not sure what outward manifestations ought to have been revealed.)  The graphic sex interlude between the husband and wife, while having the sounds and actions of arousal and climax, seemed less erotic than Masters-and-Johnson clinical.  Dominczyk made a similar impression on me, though she may have had an excuse to some degree: the character, after her first scene with Doré, becomes a sort of observer/commentator as the two others spin off into a life of which Liana’s not part.  Still, I couldn’t help feeling that the play was being presented without emotion or subtext—it was all line delivery and surface behavior as if no one really understood what was going on with these people.  (I could buy that—after all, neither could I!)

Once again, there were surprising gaps in the press coverage of a new or significant play.  Missing this time around from the print outlets were both the New York Post and the Daily News; neither Newsday nor amNewYork ran reviews and neither did New York magazine.  The New York Times was on hand, however, and Laura Collins-Hughes dubbed Night is a Room a “strange, surprising, often funny” play which has “[c]arnality . . . at its core.”  After Wallace “tosses” her “small bomb” near the end of act one, Collins-Hughes reported, “the audience, too, will be stumbling to find its footing,” moving “from confused to startled to uncomfortable, yet game and curious.”  The Times reviewer also felt, however, “There is something a little bloodless and cerebral here, too: an intellectual experiment beneath the stormy passion.”  Though she was “grateful for . . . the excellent casting,” Collins-Hughes found that the “oddest, least satisfying thing about” the play was the ending, which “wraps things up far too neatly.” She concluded that “for us, ambiguity would have been more sating.”

In the Village Voice, Miriam Felton-Dansky called Night a “strangely overwrought play” which “makes you wonder how much new there really is to say on the subject” of family relationships.  After Wallace’s characters engage in “uglier and uglier behavior for its own sake,” the Voice review-writer declared that the play “becomes a prolonged exercise in abjection,” concluding, ”Wallace’s insistence on testing the taboos in spousal and filial relationships eventually begins to feel oddly normative: an exaggerated wallowing that makes us long for the way things always were.”  The “Goings On About Town” reviewer of the New Yorker found Wallace’s script “clunky” and reported that it “seems determined to leave offstage precisely those moments that would have been most illuminating to see, resulting in too many recaps by way of impassioned dialogue and a consistent inability to convince.”  The New Yorker writer asserted that the “awkwardness is infectious.” Affecting Rauch’s direction which “opts for confessional realism” instead of “an embrace of the story’s inherent absurdity.”  (The reviewer also agreed with me that “the actors struggle with their Yorkshire accents.”)  In the end, the reviewer insisted that “the root fault lies in the words: too many of them, jammed with too many elaborate metaphors that fail to ignite.”

David Cote of Time Out New York determined, “Night is a Room faintly recalls Albee and Pinter’s cryptic, psychosexual puzzles, but Wallace carves out her own territory with rich, daring (if too often bathetic) language.”  In Variety, Marilyn Stasio wrote that Night is a Room “feels a lot like ersatz Albee,” referring to The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? (a play about bestiality—which more than one reviewer referenced), but that Wallace’s play lacks “Albee’s stinging language or his biting cerebral assault on the moral standards of our smugly liberal society.”  Stasio reported, however, “The production values . . . are exceptionally fine under the detail-minded direction of Bill Rauch.”  The reviewer from Variety asserted, “Wallace writes with a kind of ecstatic lyricism, a love song to the sound of her own poetic voice,” but complained that despite some “beautiful” “individual images,” “the age-old conflict between mother and wife is reduced to a single blunt and literal metaphor.” 

The cyber reviewers were as mixed in their opinions as were their ink-stained colleagues.  On TheaterMania, David Gordon called Night is a Room “eyebrow-arching” and a “dark comedy” that reaches “new heights of salaciousness” in its tale of domestic lives thrown into shambles.  Nevertheless, said Gordon, “it still seems disappointingly ordinary.”  According to the TM reviewer, Night

is designed to make viewers experience great euphoria and deep pain, rife with frank discussions and uncomfortable depictions of sexual relations, as well as graphic violence . . . .  But even with long swaths of beautiful writing mixed in amid the inescapable pulpiness, Night Is a Room doesn’t really accomplish as much as it wants, nor does it feel particularly substantial. 

Though he felt the production was “drolly directed” and “consistently entertaining,” Gordon complained that “the second act wraps the piece up with too neat a bow for all the messiness that has transpired.”  He praised the “mordantly funny dialogue and a pair of stunning performances from Dominczyk and Dowd,” but, noting that a viewer shouted, “This is crazy,” twice during the performance, he concluded, “In the end, however, even ‘crazy’ has its limits.

New York Theater’s Jonathan Mandell described Night as “the most gratifying” of Wallace’s three-play residency at STC, but added the caveat: “but only for the first half.”  In Mandell’s assessment, Wallace sets up the shocking situation “in a long, well-done dramatic scene,” but then, “doesn’t seem to know where to go.”  After that, the NYT review-writer observed,The characters’ reactions are one-note; the remaining plot is uninteresting and pointlessly prolonged.”  In the end, he noted that “there is little light cast on our social mores or the human condition.”  Matthew Murray wrote of “the astonishing, breath-stealing landscape” depicted in Night is a Room on Talkin’ Broadway, describing the play as “a wasteland of shattered souls so complete, so unforgiving, that your response isn’t terror or revulsion, but in fact denial.”  With “sublime” acting, Murray felt, “Night Is a Room will be one of the year’s most talked-about plays, in addition to likely the most disturbing seen at a mainstream New York venue.”  Nonetheless, he saw that “it can’t maintain its power for its full two-hour running time.”  The TB writer’s final analysis was, “Because Night Is a Room gives us so much to chew on, the easy-to-swallow ending is imbued with a bitter aftertaste that stops just short of ruining the five-course dinner that precedes it.”

On New York Theatre Guide, Sarah Downs, dubbing the play “thought-provoking, gripping,” asserted that Wallace “has written a story that is entirely new” and the reviewer christened it “drama with a capital D” because “Wallace mines [the] premise for everything it’s got, and then some.”  Further, Downs added, “[A]ll three actors deliver, giving robust, textured performances,” though the reviewer thought that Dominczyk’s Liana “stands out.”  Director Rauch, she wrote, “demonstrates a mastery of working with powerful material, shepherding its varied elements with assured simplicity,” and unlike many of her colleagues, Downs felt, “There is no loss of integrity” from act one to act two—even though she, too, found that the ending “feels abrupt.”  As her final word, the NYTG reviewer wrote that “you are caught between Can’t. Watch. and Must. Look., but resistance is futile.”  Elyse Sommer of CurtainUp felt that Wallace wasn’t “adding anything especially insightful to the issues she’s tackling” in Night is a Room despite the show having been “handily” mounted by Rauch and his designers and the cast having delivered “all-out, no-holds-barred performances.”  In spite of that praise for the actors, Sommer added, “I can’t say that their characters drew me in enough to engage me fully or make me sympathize strongly with any of them.”

Night is a Room “is so heavy-handedly written and loaded with bombastically dramatic situations,” reported Michael Dale on Broadway World, “that . . . a great deal of the audience was laughing out loud during scenes that were surely meant to be taken seriously.”  Dale even went further with his disappointment: “The fact that director Bill Rauch’s cast is so good, and so honestly committed to the material, only makes the script’s clunkiness more apparent.”  On TheaterScene, Joel Benjamin declared, “Naomi Wallace has fashioned an outrageously ridiculous, brilliantly written play that constantly and happily slaps the audience in its face with one coup de theatre after another.”  Benjamin continued: “That Night is a Room succeeds as well as it does is thanks to Wallace’s scintillating way with words and her ability to fashion clear, if slightly clichéd, characters.”  Comparing Night to Greek tragedy, TS’s reviewer characterized the play as “far more playful than that genre of dramatic writing, going more for shock value than moral edification.”  Praising Rauch for directing “with total comprehension,” the review-writer concluded, “The pleasure of Night Is a Room is watching these three expert actors speak Wallace’s rich, insightful language which veers from wittily highfalutin to excitingly vulgar.”


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