Judging by Loose Knit, framework and plotting was not the strength of early Rebeck. Scenes of five Manhattan women gathered together once a week in one or another of their apartments for meetings of their sewing circle alternate with scenes of some of the women on dates at a posh sushi restaurant with the wealthy (he's in "mergers and acquisitions"), well connected and imperiously hurtful Miles. Despite blatant contrivance, there are revelations, betrayals and reversals which are diverting, hold our interest, and move the plot along. However, the great strength of Loose Knit is in the wickedly hilarious, satirically biting, and deeply insightful depictions of the women of the sewing circle. There are disturbed behaviors which are rendered understandable at a visceral level by the superlative writing and performances.
Lily is the only member of the sewing circle who is married. She has a young daughter at home and is not pursuing a career. Her husband Bob, who has just begun an affair with her sister, is a college instructor who has failed to gain tenure. Heather Wahl dimensionally portrays the cauldron of emotional turmoil that simmers just below the surface of a Lily who is only feigning being cool and in control. Lily's manipulative, deceitful behavior toward the other women provides the storyline for the play. In using her as a catalyst, Rebeck has rendered Lily the only circle member whose motivations are muddled and not unsatisfying conveyed.
The other members of the circle are accomplished, high strung, neurotic, crises-ridden career women whose problems are exacerbated to one extent or another by their concerns about men. The better we get to know each of them, the more admirable and involving each becomes. Liz, Lilly's sister, is a high profile freelance entertainment industry reporter. Liz's betrayal of her sister is reprehensible and she may be falsely pretentious in disdaining her celebrity interviews, but Liz will prove to be a strong and brilliant, no-nonsense match for any man. The lovely and deftly comedic Diana Cherkas portrays Liz with a verve and sparkle that belies the false notion that being strong and dominant need compromise a woman's feminine appeal.
Jenelle Sosa, whose consistently excellent performances have graced several New Jersey stages in recent years, extraordinarily extends her range in the role of the thirtyish incipient actress Margie. All of us who are familiar with aspiring neurotic actresses will recognize the trip wire nerves, the frazzled blurting out of inappropriate thoughts, the need to be loved and adored, and the desperation for a man on whom to rely by one who may have hit a dead end in her desire to pursue her impossible dream. (Loose Ends clearly occurs in 1992 or 1993, the years of its workshop and Second Stage production. When Miles asks Margie what show he might have seen her, she names the infamous, unintentionally hilarious 1988 musical disaster Carrie, and leaves us doubting whether even this is true.) With unerring accuracy, Sosa channels the impossible behaviors and longing for affection of Margie into a performance that is at once hilarious, harrowing and heart-breaking.
Megan Davis' Gina remains in the background until the second act when the sewing circle meeting shifts to her disheveled, knit sweater-buried apartment. Gina has been "excessed" from her job working as a lawyer for the City of New York and retreated into knitting rather than facing the reality of her situation. Megan Davis is moving as the forlorn and depressed Gina who has chosen job security only to be derailed by policies beyond her control.
Jessica Fontaine plays Paula, a psychotherapist who has social and career problems similar to the balance of the circle, with the added burdens of having to repeatedly listen to the woes of others, and of having to cope with the casual racism directed toward her. Fontaine performs reasonably well, but fails to bring to Paula the dynamic, revivifying stage life that the other actresses bring to their roles.
With a stylish and witty performance, Lou Steele presents us with a Miles who goes from being someone we love to hate to being not unsympathetic. Jay Gaussoin rounds out the cast in the role of Bob.
Director Mary Ethel Schmidt deserves huge credit for having elicited performances which illuminate Theresa Rebeck's characters to an exceptional degree. Brian Flynn's set design cleverly differentiates among the three apartments. Julia Sharp's costumes are apt and eye pleasing.
Theresa Rebeck has stated that her plays depict "betrayal and treason and poor behavior. A lot of poor behavior", and that she is "more interested in life's losers than winners." She also is "interested in what drives people to poor behavior, adding that "there are monsters out there," and that they are monsters. Loose Knit displays all of the above. However, when her losers and monsters are as sympathetically and insightfully drawn as Rebeck and her interpreters have done here, they are given a humanity which renders them more and better than such designations.
Centenary Stage Company's first class production of Loose Knit makes Hackettstown a worthy destination spot for theatre lovers throughout northern New Jersey and beyond.
Loose Knit continues performances (Evening.: Thursday 7:30 PM; Friday & Saturday 8 PM/ Matinees Wednesday, Friday & Sunday 2:30 pm) through March 7, 2010, at the Centenary Stage Company on the campus of Centenary College, 400 Jefferson Street, Hackettstown, NJ 07840. Box Office: 908-979-0900; online: www.centenarystageco.org.
Loose Knit by Theresa Rebeck; directed by Mary Ethel Schmidt