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Theatre Review by James Wilson - November 20, 2022

Marjan Neshat
Photo by Carol Rosegg
Five years ago, Billy Crudup made an indelible impression as a chameleon-like con man in David Cale's Harry Clarke. Crudup performed nearly twenty characters and was mesmerizing as he drew the audience into his tale of duplicity and amorality. Cale's newest solo play, Sandra, currently running at the Vineyard Theatre, stars Marjan Neshat as a forty-something-year-old woman caught in a web of international intrigue, mysterious disappearances, and perhaps murder. While not as engrossing as Cale's previous work, Sandra is a mostly entertaining, if not crackling, thriller.

The play centers around café owner Sandra Jones (Neshat), who is recently separated from her husband of thirteen years (and they had been together for seven years before that). When Sandra learns that her dear friend Ethan, a gay man and composer in his early thirties, has not returned from a short vacation in Puerto Vallarta, she books a flight to Mexico while in a drunken stupor. Initially, she's not sure what she's doing there. She says, "The first day in Puerto Vallarta my thoughts run the gamut from worrying Ethan has had a drug relapse, he's been kidnapped, gay bashed, is injured somewhere, oh Lord, the thought of someone hurting him; to thinking, maybe he'd planned this."

During her trip, she meets a handsome and charming thirty-three-year-old Italian-Irish-American, who tells her he is a student in Mexico City. A passionate love affair ensues, and Sandra is soon shuttling back and forth between the U.S. and Mexico. No spoilers will be revealed here, but based on the set-up, it will not come as any surprise to know that Sandra's life will be in grave danger as she pursues her friend's disappearance.

Under Leigh Silverman's straightforward direction, Neshat is a resourceful storyteller, and she efficiently portrays the many different characters in the tale. She remains seated through most of the 80-minute show, but with a shift in her posture, she indicates a change in locale, and with changes in her accent, she conveys an assemblage of individuals that includes an eccentric southern acquaintance, revengeful husband, well-meaning co-worker, a hot-blooded lover, and several more. Neshat is one of New York's busiest artists, and in the past year alone, she has given impressive performances in Selling Kabul, English, and Wish You Were Here. Sandra is yet another notable achievement.

Cale's play benefits from spare and outstanding design elements. Rachel Hauck's set consists of a single living room chair set between two standalone walls with a fading, papered backdrop. The set suggests Sandra's emptied apartment, but as her plight becomes more and more dire, the walls seem to be closing in on her.

Thom Weaver's lighting and Kathy Ruvuna's sound evocatively capture the atmospheric moods of the places in which Sarah's story traverses. (Linda Cho's costume contribution, a stylish orange dress, causes occasional awkwardness in some of Neshat's chair choreography.) Matthew Dean Marsh's music, which represents Ethan's compositions, is haunting and lovely.

Taken all together, however, the play is not nearly as gripping as one would expect based on Cale's previous work. Sandra is something of a cross between Shirley Valentine in its depiction of a middle-aged woman's sexual reawakening, and Wait Until Dark with the rising suspense of a woman in mortal peril. The plot, though, relies on conventional and overused elements of stage mysteries, such as farfetched coincidences, accidental slips of the tongue, and alcohol-induced confessions. As a result, whereas thrillers typically climax with gasps and edge-of-the-seat tension, Sandra ends with incredulousness and some disappointment.

Through December 11, 2022
Vineyard Theatre
108 E. 15th Street
Tickets online and current performance schedule: