Even those with a passionate love for English will find their patience tried by Eric Houston's Becoming Adele, which Gotham Stage Company is presenting at the Clurman Theatre. After all, a play can't be that involving when the evening's biggest surprise turns on what you thought was a verb (that B word in the title) being revealed as an adjective.
If you find it hard to believe that such a moment could be so revitalizing, you should know it's the only time in the play anything actually happens; action of any sort is welcome when you've been sedentary for an hour and a half. Until that grammatical metamorphosis unveils itself - in the play's final seconds, as these things always work out - the adventures of Adele Scabaglio (Kimberly Stern) are as static as late-night television back in the era of rabbit ears.
From the day in the fall of 1990 when she moves into her steal of a Manhattan rent-controlled apartment ($450 per month, if you must know) to the day she moves out nearly 11 years later, Adele divides her life into two pastimes: finding herself and relating her search to us in meticulous detail. Neither, unfortunately, is exciting as it sounds. Houston has given Adele brushes with a lunkhead husband, an insensitive father, a gay best friend, and a disastrous job that becomes a lucrative career, but none provide large enough sparks to blaze to recognizable life.
Adele is a woman who arrived late the day they were distributing the self-esteem, and has built all her life and relationships around the myth of her limited abilities. All she needs is someone to believe in, because no one can possibly believe in her. Houston has also given her the requisite dash of spunk and a pinch of the "keep soldiering on" mentality, which he no doubt hoped would help make her a compelling anchor for 90 minutes of theatre.
With no other characters to populate Adele's world, and no events that place her life in a social context beyond a personal sphere of self-pity, there's not a lot for either us or for Houston to grab onto. Adele's story could be anyone's: How often have we seen the innocent newcomer to the city turn into a hardened rooftop shouter? Or the mouse of a wife who so disappears into her husband's shadow that when she must emerge after her death it's almost a Herculean struggle? Or the antique-creaky method of theatrical time-travel that utilizes lines like "God, six years since I been up here"? All three - and numerous other tropes - make less than captivating appearances.
Stern, who in voice and stature resembles Rosie O'Donnell (albeit with considerably more onstage charm), is a friendly and funny actress, who breezily brushes off jokes as though she were pushing aside an errant lock of hair. She is not, however, a particularly warm actress, and the chill she brings to Adele undercuts the well-intentioned revolutionary tendencies the character develops as the play progresses. She's also not especially adept at modulating her line delivery in ways that might prevent Adele's endless explanatory speeches from sounding like, well, endless explanatory speeches.
But Stern does as much as anyone can in playing a character who does little more than narrate her life from her apartment building's rooftop. (Antje Ellerman's rooftop set, smoggily lit by Lucas Benjaminh Krech, is convincing.) Victor Maog's staging is right in line, looking as aimless as Adele so often sounds, and it fails to establish how passing years are taking their toll on Adele - for good or bad. Myrna Colley-Lee's costumes do the most successful work, guiding Adele from plain-Jane wife to flashy businesswoman, but never feel like they're telling more than half the story.
Half the story, however, is about all we get. Adele, at least as she presents herself to us, feels incomplete and unworthy a subject for a full-length play. She's kind of a modern Rhoda Morgenstern, whom Valerie Harper played so hilariously on the classic 70s sitcom Mary Tyler Moore - fine enough as a down-to-earth ball of fret, but in need of a tight-knit comic ensemble around her so she can really shine. Spin her off into her own world, though, and while the results might be mildly amusing they'll never be legendary. It was true of the Harper-starred Rhoda, and it's true of Becoming Adele.