The dialogue between Lady Paradis (Ella Joyce) and her daughter Dee (Francesca Choy-Kee) begins in the early 1980s as Lady, facing the audience, applies make-up prior to going to dinner. Greenidge shifts the action between that time period and a decade earlier when Dee and her roommate Grace Mahoney (Libby Woodbridge) were students at a well-to-do girls' private school somewhere in New England. Grace, from Boston (complete with an accurate accent), is conservative and tight.
Dee, however, becomes involved with eclectic Michael Cabot (Tommy Schrider), an intense, jazz-loving herky-jerky sort of guy. He has eyes and moves for Dee as Michael's marriage to Joan (Emily Dorsch) is far from appealing to him. Instead, he wishes to convince Dee to celebrate her heritage as a black woman. Cabot brings her a necklace and skirt that he hopes she will wear to showcase her culture.
Eventually, and not surprisingly, Dee and Michael physically merge. But, of course, Michael is married to Joan and Dee is Michael's student. Still, we thus have the character of Jane Paradis (Malenky Welsh), the result of the episode between Dee and Michael. Back to the 1980s: Lady Paradis hopes to send Jane to St. Ursula's. Dee, though, vows that her daughter will not repeat that history.
Bossa Nova, staged without intermission and with a running time of about 105 minutes, is an attention-getter. It opens with a short instrumental from "The Girl From Ipanema." The tone of the play is quite varied: sometimes Lady and Dee, while contentious at home, converse as mother and daughter. Michael (Mr.) Cabot could be viewed as a predator; but he is not really malicious. Dee, in more ways than one, is caught. She grew up with a mother who was prideful of aristocracy. Dee, the teenager, finds Michael Cabot initially compelling. Ten years later, she intends to free her own daughter so that Jane will become an independent woman.
It does take time to adjust to the many back-and-forth sequences of the play. The performers, led by Yionoulis, move without a hitch. In retrospect, the flashbacks work.
Choy-Kee is impressive and deft as the pivotal Dee. The actress follows the emotional character transpositions flawlessly. Dee is irritated with her mother, infatuated with Cabot, loyal and then more distant from Grace, and dedicated to Jane. Dee's worlds collide. Tommy Schrider, frequently featured by Berkshire Theatre Festival, is excellent as the manic Michael Cabot, a passionate man who might, years later, be upset with his current behavior. Woodbridge, as Libby, is unwavering and disciplined.
It would not be a mistake to call Bossa Nova a period piece, for it addresses very different epochs. Playwright Greenidge writes with specificity. One senses the force behind her words and the resultant play is deep-felt. Ana M. Milosevic's spare but lovely set design is a fine complement.
Bossa Nova continues at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven through December 18th. For tickets, call the box office at (203) 432-1234 or visit yalerep.org.
- Fred Sokol