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Hurricane Diane

Theatre Review by David Hurst - February 24, 2019

Michelle Beck, Danielle Skraastad, Mia Barron and Kate Wetherhead
Photo by Joan Marcus

For the first 75 minutes of its 90-minute, intermission-less, running time, Madeleine George's Hurricane Diane, currently onstage at New York Theatre Workshop and co-produced with Women's Project Theater, is a breezy, frequently hilarious, romp. It's a modern-day reimagining of Euripides' The Bacchae, wherein Dionysus is now Diane, "a lesbian, separatist, permaculture gardener from Vermont whose mission is restoring the Earth to its natural state — and gathering acolytes — in a well-appointed, suburban cul-de-sac in Red Bank, New Jersey." Unfortunately, once Diane has gathered her acolytes and the bacchanal has begun, playwright George doesn't know how to end the piece and the last 15 minutes go off the proverbial cliff in spectacular fashion. How spectacular? At the performance this writer attended, the ending was met with a stunned silence that lasted several seconds before one lone person in the back of the house (a member of the production staff perhaps?) started applauding. For a play that had its world premiere two years ago at the Two River Theater and has had workshops since, such a confusing, ill-defined ending is unaccountable.

But let's focus on the setup, which is a delight. Diane, who the script says may be played by any masculine person who does not identify as male and who is played with sly understatement as a very butch lesbian by trans-actor Becca Blackwell, announces her return by asking the audience, "Recognize me? No? God of agriculture, wine and song? It's okay, it's been awhile." Diane's interested in reducing carbon emissions, ending global warming and replanting the forests. She lays out her mission of healing the planet by converting its inhabitants, one community at a time. The first community on her list is in Monmouth County, New Jersey, where she's a found a cul-de-sac ripe for the picking of new acolytes. But the four ladies Diane's got her eye on are more interested in middle-class landscaping and accent benches than they are in free-range vegetation and paw-paw trees.

Becca Blackwell
Photo by Joan Marcus

Having bonded during the horrors of Hurricane Sandy a quartet of girlfriends (Carol, Beth, Renee and Pam) regularly get together for coffee and gossip. The play is set in the kitchens of all four but, since the kitchens are identical, one sensational set (courtesy of Rachel Hauck) does yeoman's work for them all. Carol Fleisher, played to high-strung perfection by Mia Barron, is a pharmaceutical compliance officer in a loveless marriage who rebuffs Diane's advances, both agricultural and romantic. On the other hand, Beth Wann, a deliciously needy Kate Wetherhead, succumbs to both. Renee Shapiro-Epps, portrayed with intellectual savvy by Michelle Beck, is an editor at House & Garden TV magazine. Renee buys what Diane is selling and even pitches her as a cover story to her boss, but her boss isn't buying. The last nut for Diane to crack is the tough talking, animal-print wearing Pam Annunziata, brilliantly brought to life by Danielle Skraastad who gets laughs with every utterance. But once Diane has seduced Beth, Renee and Pam, she knows she has to win over Carol to start her mystery cult but Carol ferociously resists.

The remainder of Hurricane Diane devolves with frightening speed. Accompanied by an ill-conceived song (courtesy of the overrated Bengsons) and head-scratching choreography (by Raja Feather Kelly), Diane's bacchanal hurtles over the cliff. It's hard to know what director Leigh Silverman is thinking but the strange, abortive ending quickly undoes the goodwill the piece has meticulously wrought. There is an imbalance in the production between the sensational chemistry between the four women and the relative staid delivery of Blackwell as Diane. From the perspective of lesbian and queer theatre, one can make the argument Blackwell is wonderful in the role and that her subtle take on her character exudes an undeniable sexiness. On the other hand, one can also make the case that Blackwell ‘s tentative underplaying results in a lack of magnetism that renders her performance flaccid. But either way you view Blackwell, Hurricane Diane is a showcase for Barron, Wetherhead, Beck and Skraastad. It's just a shame the play is still searching for an ending.

Hurricane Diane
Through March 10
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street
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