There's a lot of smoke but very little heat coming from Embers at the Chelsea Playhouse.
Catherine Gropper's new play is based on the life of Louise Nevelson, a sculptor who first became prominent in New York in the middle of the twentieth century. Though Nevelson's work focused primarily on the female sensibility, there's little present onstage here that gives a sense of what her contribution to the world of art was.
Nevelson, as portrayed by Nada Rowand, is devoted to two things: Art and talking about it. As she explains at one point, she lives in her hands. She was born to create. She wants to "ignite the city air." When asked about using another color in her pieces, she refuses, saying, "Black brings out their form." If the rest of Nevelson's character were well fleshed out, these lines could be forgiven. As such, they cannot; Nevelson speaks in little more than platitudes throughout.
It is to Ms. Rowand's considerable credit, though, that she is able to make lines such as these not only bearable, but oddly compelling for most of the evening. Whether rooting through garbage for material, railing against the inclusion of one of her earliest pieces, or dealing with harsh betrayal, Rowand is perfectly watchable almost throughout.
Less can be said of Kenneth Wilson-Harrington in his role as Nick, Louise's son, who is singularly unconvincing from the first moment to the last. His role takes on its greatest prominence in the second half, when the story - which degenerates into little more than a by-the-numbers mother-son conflict - requires him to match Rowand's determination and dramatic energy. He is simply not up to the task. He delivers his lines in a carefully measured way, making every word simultaneously clear in diction and devoid of feeling.
Michael Graves plays Louise's would-be suitor and Melissa Wolff the photographer who lives with Louise and helps her build a life. While they both give stronger performances than Wilson-Harrington, Gropper and the show's director, Helena Webb, don't give them enough character or personality to make them particularly memorable. A last-ditch effort of the script to involve Wolff in the action near the end of the play is fruitless; none of what's said in the script is supported by what's come before.
That's the most frustrating part of Embers. Physically, the production is perfectly realized: The set designer, Jared Coseglia, with the help of sculptors Cory Grant, Paul Hudson, Magin Schantz, and Katerina Fiore create exactly the right atmosphere, suggesting Nevelson's work and making it ever present onstage. But Gropper's script, with its stale witticisms about the artist's life and a weak story culminating in a struggle between mother and son that is all too difficult to accept, subverts what could have been a more captivating study of a worthy subject.
The real-life Nevelson may have been a smouldering artistic genius, but this play about her simply doesn't burn brightly enough.