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Inner Voices

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Victoria Clark
Photo by Andy Criss.

Many one-person plays are ghost stories, haunted more by those who aren't there than enlivened by whoever is. Why should one-person musicals be any different? The conflict between multiple characters who sing or dance their passions and frustrations, to say nothing of the conflict between speech and song and choreography, is what gives musicals their delicious bite, and its absence is usually glaring when a single man or woman is speaking alone, however intense his or her story might be.

In the new triple bill of one-woman tuners called Inner Voices: Solo Musicals, which is performing at the Zipper Factory Theater through May 30, this is the case more often than not. Take heart, however: It's not that one out of three ain't bad - it's that one out of three is extraordinary.

That's "Tres Niñas," the first in the evening and the one with the most immediately recognizable names onstage and off. Written by Michael John LaChiusa (The Wild Party, See What I Wanna See) and Ellen Fitzhugh, starring Tony winner Victoria Clark (The Light in the Piazza), and directed by Jonathan Butterell, it tells an astonishingly sober and wrenchingly topical tale of a California woman whose life has been formed and informed by her proximity to illegal immigrants.

As a girl in the 1950s, she and her sisters took food to a fleeing family who hid near her home south of San Diego. As a young mother, she smuggled a Mexican woman named Madalena into the U.S. to serve as her maid and nanny for several months, before Madalena's mother's failing health drew her back. Years later, in the depths of middle age, she relieved a handsome 18-year-old Mexican boy of his virginity and experienced the kinds of payback that support and refute stereotypes.

Each chapter in the woman's life story is a gripping look at the battles between prejudice and tolerance waged within even the most accepting soul. American and Spanish-tinged styles deftly mingle in the lyrics and music, with the strains of piano (musical director Todd Almond) and guitar (Michael Aarons) limning every aroma of romantic uncertainty from the woman's struggle to discern her own emotional identity. Clark acts and sings gorgeously, her optimistic, gold-leafed soprano battling with her questioning belt and matter-of-fact speaking voice to outline all the possibilities and pitfalls of pursuing relationships with people from beyond our borders.

While "Tres Niñas" is unlikely to change your opinion about illegal immigration, which in recent years has exploded in the headlines as seldom before, it's a beautiful and powerful reminder to never take the United States - or its neighbors - for granted. The shows that follow don't aim for or accomplish as much, and are thus somewhat deflating after such an ambitious opener.

Barbara Walsh
Photo by Andy Criss.

Of the two, "A Thousand Words Come to Mind," is the more interesting: This wispy two-way character sketch by Michele Lowe and Scott Davenport Richards and directed by Jack Cummings III finds a woman (the elegant Barbara Walsh) obsessing over her mother's impact on late-20th-century literature. Her poring over the writings of Philip Roth, John Updike, and others for clues about which characters mom may have inspired is better in concept than in execution, with the unknown more an intriguing phantasm than a corporeal threat. Most notable here are the last two minutes, in which the woman discovers the truth, and the occasional smoky-jazz songs that carry smoldering torches for all unrequited mother-daughter relationships.

Jennifer Damiano
Photo by Andy Criss.

But if we never get to know either woman well enough to care what really happened when and with whom, Laura Harrington and Jenny Giering's "Alice Unwrapped" is even less engrossing. It focuses on a girl (Jennifer Damiano) who dons armor (figurative and literal types) to protect herself from pain after her military father disappears in the Middle East, and becomes less than the pillar of strength her mother and younger sister need. The music is part brightly youthful exuberance and part weary masquerade, the right tone for this girl, but the lines and lyrics, the staging (by Jeremy Dobrish), and Damiano's generic hurt-hiding performance don't capture the necessary sense of a young life falling apart before it's begun.

Both "Alice Unwrapped" and "A Thousand Words Come to Mind" play like vivid two-person musicals trapped in unnecessarily diminutive bodies, as if the presence of another person (Alice's needy sister Ellie in the former, and a multiple-role male sounding board in the latter) would enhance - rather than despoil - the intimacy of these women's stories.

"Tres Niñas," however, needs nothing more. Already terse and taut, it seems as though even the tiniest addition would cause its insinuating charms to evaporate the way Clark's smile does as her character reflects on the choices and sacrifices she's made during her life. Her transformation, from innocence to expedience to true understanding, is a cuttingly enjoyable and surprising journey through a scorching political issue that Clark makes deeply personal. The "three girls" of the title not only fuse into one adult woman, but into a striking, adult saga that proves a one-person, one-character show need not be underpopulated when it comes to feelings.

Inner Voices
Through May 30
Zipper Theatre, 336 West 37th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues
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