Little Black Dress
I thought we had arrived late for the start of the show because there were Marianna Bassham puttering around the kitchen and Jeremiah Kissel slouching on the sofa, underscored by Frank Sinatra wafting from the hi-fi. They took no notice of our entrance and it began to feel like we were scientists observing their activities under a microscope. In a way, each of the four characters in Ronan Noone's Little Black Dress at the Boston Playwrights' Theatre is a specimen in a study of the human condition and, while they may be familiar, the telling of their story is not. The frustrated housewife, the disgruntled factory worker and the slacker teenage son are anything but stereotypical as depicted in the pages of Noone's one-act and in the portrayals of these skilled actors. When their secret desires are mixed with the vision of the entrepreneurial young man about town, their lives and their home in Blue River, Kansas, will never be the same.
The author describes his new play as being "about the individual battling to give his/her life significance and using whatever means available for this end." From that premise, he weaves four threads loosely together and then proceeds to unravel them in interesting and imaginative ways. The dysfunctional Beaudreaux family, consisting of mother Amy (Bassham), father Jimmy, Sr. (Kissel) and Jimmy, Jr. (Alex Pollock), represents a blue collar, hand-to-mouth way of life, each member suffering an existential crisis. Jimmy Jr.'s friend Charly (Karl Baker Olson) is his polar oppositea dynamic, self-assured go-getter who knows what he wants and grabs whatever opportunity presents itself to him.
Amy is the focal point, breaking the fourth wall to explain herself to the audience early on. Married for 19 years, she is 41 and at her sexual peak, but barely surviving her loveless relationship. What keeps her going is a small tome in which she carries four items: pictures of her idol Princess Grace, a Florida beach, a Marc Jacobs black dress and the late Rock Hudson; and she wears a little silver cross talisman to remind her of her more desirable, younger self. She finds freedom from her virtual prison through sex with Charly, who establishes a gigolo business to bring comfort to as many of the town's frustrated women as he can service. When his client list taxes him, he enlists Jr. to handle the overflow, changing the previously directionless boy into a man with prospects. Jimmy, Sr. is alternately dispassionate, disconnected or disrespected in the family circle and exemplifies Thoreau's truism that most men lead lives of quiet desperation. You can almost hear him saying "I coulda been a contender" were it not for the sacrifices he had to make for wife and son to keep body and soul together. All he wants in return is to be king in his own castle, but he has a heavy-handed way of asking for it and ends up with no reward. Well, he ends up with worse than that, but I don't want to spoil any of the twists and turns that the story takes.
Noone's comedy comes in very deep shades of black and there are moments when the audience can't make up their collective minds as to whether or not it's okay to laugh. There are several squirm-worthy scenes that include inappropriate mother-son contact and surprising acts of violence. The climax is not for the faint of stomach (shades of Fatal Attraction), but it is riveting. Just when you think there's nothing left to unravel, Noone pulls on another strand. Each of the family members is driven to a point of no return by their existential angst. Charly may be the only one who finds a way to put a positive spin on his negative small town circumstances, but he unwittingly sells his soul for his freedom.
Bassham carries the bulk of the emotional weight of the play, as Amy evolves from bored housewife to happy adulteress to emancipated woman (hear me roar). The actress conveys these changes by her body language and facial expressions, becoming more animated and energetic with each progression. She is equally convincing in her amorous scenes with her lover and her spite-filled matchups with Kissel. He exudes rage and seems always on the edge of exploding, even when Sr. is ineffectively trying to connect with his wife or son. His fidgety physicality adds a heavy dose of menace to his portrayal. Pollock never appears to be acting as he inhabits the insecure teen torn between his dream of becoming a graphic designer for video games and committing suicide. His is a difficult existence as his best friend wants to bring him into his business, his father doesn't understand him and communicates by bullying, and his mother's unconditional love tends to go over the top. It is a delight to watch Pollock react to all of this with disgust or discomfort or by mentally disappearing. It is also a treat to see Olson in a dynamic role showcasing his energy and spirit as he has successfully played more brooding, sensitive or foppish young men in other area productions.
The intimate space of the Boston Playwrights' Theatre lends itself to the immersion of the audience into the claustrophobic world of the Beaudreaux clan. After Director Ari Edelson ensnares us by having the actors onstage when we arrive, he keeps us engaged by their frenetic movement and monologues directed to us. We become co-conspirators, as well as observers of this morose reality. Music and the sound from a couple of television programs punctuate the conversations, adding to the play's texture and occasionally mocking one of the characters. Jon Savage provides each member of the family with a default place on his detailed set that serves as home base. Amy hovers around the kitchen, Sr. commandeers the couch, and Jr. hides away in his garret or on the roof. Nikki Pierce successfully employs lighting changes to accent scenes and draw our attention to a niche or a moment.
Wearing the mantle of the immigrant commenting on America, Noone does a decidedly good job of getting into the psyche of these Midwestern characters. He does not stop short of exposing their most base tendencies. While not excusing or lauding their behavior, he allows them to inform us of cause and effect either through the monologues or their conversations with each other. Some of it isn't all that nice to hear, but there is a lot of truth in these exchanges and it is always in keeping with the personalities. The play addresses several themes, but they flow naturally from the action and keep us involved. When the loose ends get tied up neatly, it all makes sense and everybody seems to be right where they belong.
Boston Playwrights' Theatre is an award-winning professional theatre dedicated to new work. Ronan Noone is an Assistant Professor of Playwriting at Boston University and previous winner of the Michael Kanin National Playwriting Award, the Boston Theatre Critic Association's Elliot Norton Award and IRNE Award for Best New Play.
Little Black Dress. Performances through October 24 at Boston Playwrights' Theatre, 949 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston. Box Office 617-353-5443 or www.bu.edu/bpt/.
Directed by Ari Edelson; Production Stage Manager, Marsha Smith; Set Designer, Jon Savage; Lighting Designer, Nikki Pierce; Costume Designer, Amelia Gossett; Sound Designer, Steven McIntosh; Fight Director, Adam McLean; Dance Choreographer, Judith Chaffee
Cast: Charly: Karl Baker Olson; Amy: Marianna Bassham; Jimmy, Sr.: Jeremiah Kissel; Jimmy, Jr.: Alex Pollock