Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis
Also see Susan's review of The Beaux' Stratagem
Some people worship Jesus, some people worship Elvis Presley, and some people imagine Jesus returning to earth and singing "Love Me Tender." That's the primary insight of Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis, the 1999 English play by Charlotte Jones receiving its U.S. premiere at Washington's Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.
While Woolly presents a lot of plays about oddly matched families, this one – for all its initial charm – tends to drag and goes on too long. Jones frames the story as a modern-day holiday fable, set on January 6 (the Feast of the Epiphany, or Twelfth Night) in the industrial city of Bolton, England. Director John Vreeke does his best to keep the characters real in the midst of the absurd situations, but it isn't always possible.
All of Jones' characters want something out of life they're not getting. Josie (Beth Hylton) has reached the age of 40 and no longer enjoys her work as a "therapist" of a specialized kind (she's a dominatrix). She has a daughter of indeterminate age and mental capacity, Brenda-Marie (Kimberly Gilbert), who believes she will be a champion ice dancer although she's never even put on a pair of skates. Josie's housekeeper, Martha (Sarah Marshall), is a devout Catholic who still places a pilgrimage to Graceland above a visit to Lourdes on her list of lifetime priorities. Martha also suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder, a real hardship for a housecleaner.
Matters come to a crisis when Lionel (David Bryan Jackson), one of Josie's regular clients and also a friend, decides to cheer her up with a birthday party. He brings along Timothy Wong (Tony Nam), an aspiring Elvis impersonator who hasn't quite learned his songs yet. (Actually, the title aside, he isn't Chinese; he was born in Vietnam.) The arrival of another, unexpected guest from Josie's past (Tiffany Fillmore) is enough to destroy any festive mood that may have been gathering.
Hylton is tough, pragmatic, and ably depicts a woman facing burnout and coming to terms with the past. Gilbert has trouble making Brenda-Marie specific enough: the character could be a young teenager being played by an adult performer, or an adult woman with a child's sense of perception, and Gilbert never really makes clear which she is portraying. The characters who could seem most like caricatures – Jackson (who wears a black velvet maid's uniform at one point), the perpetually busy Marshall, and Nam, whose character is struggling just to get through the evening – find depths beyond their outward follies.
Vreeke's direction is busy and businesslike, keeping the actors from running into each other as the plot contrivances pile up. Dan Conway has designed an elaborate set that cleverly intermixes outward middle-class respectability with surprises, such as the one living-room cupboard that Josie always keeps locked.
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company