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Night Is a Room

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Ann Dowd, Dagmara Dominczyk, and Bill Heck
Photo by T. Charles Erickson

The debris is everywhere, the devastation total, and the three people who stand amid the wreckage of a once sensible world could themselves not look more dazed and uncertain. None of them understands what's happened or what will happen in the future, yet they're well aware that—for reasons well beyond their control—this is the way it has to be. But that doesn't lessen the pain for them, or your discomfort in watching it `all unfold.

This is the astonishing, breath-stealing landscape that crowns the second scene of Naomi Wallace's play Night Is a Room, which just opened at the Pershing Square Signature Center in a Signature Theatre production. It's a wasteland of shattered souls so complete, so unforgiving, that your response isn't terror or revulsion, but in fact denial. "This is ridiculous," you may find saying to yourself (as I did), "this couldn't actually happen." But if it could or did happen, it's a safe bet that it would look a lot like what Wallace and her director, Bill Rauch, have accomplished here with the actors Dagmara Dominczyk, Ann Dowd, and Bill Heck.

As for what, specifically, "this" is, it's perhaps best if we don't dwell on that. So severe, so shocking (not just within the boundaries Wallace has set, but objectively speaking) is it that to reveal too much about it would defuse its impact. So for now, let's just say that it's pretty much the ultimate nightmare one can conceive when the players involved are an approaching-elder woman (Doré, played by Dowd), her long-lost son Marcus (Heck), and his wife Liana (Dominczyk).

Part of what makes it so terrible is that there should be nothing terrible about it. The lead-up is ordinary, even pedestrian. In the town of Leeds, England, Liana has spent years and a considerable sum of money trying to track down Doré. She was forced to give up Marcus for adoption 40 years earlier, mere moments after his birth, and has thus never been a part of his life. But, as her present to her husband for his big-four-oh birthday, Liana wants Doré and Marcus to come together, to get to know each other, and begin erasing the decades that have been lost to both of them.

She gets her wish. Marcus meets Doré, and the two establish an immediate connection—so much, in fact, that they spend increasing amounts of time together, but always at Doré's unassuming flat and not Marcus and Liana's home. They eventually invite her over for an evening, and when she arrives, it doesn't take long for the picture to change wildly, and for Liana (and, to some extent, all of them) to learn the hard way that wishes can have unfortunate consequences when, against the odds, they come true.

If the nature of the conflict that subsequently consumes the three has an air of improbability about it, Wallace and Rauch never let on. The scene morphs gradually but seamlessly between relevant feelings and attitudes, joking giving way to rage giving way to despair giving way to hope giving way to... well, you name it. It's an inordinately complex problem, precisely because it's so simple: Each character needs something so specific that the others cannot provide it without making what seems like an unreasonable sacrifice. And trying to communicate this in any useful way is, to understate the case, not easy.

The actors handle the matter sublimely, with the chief accomplishment the thoroughness of the blinding contrast between Dominczyk's ebullient elegance and Dowd's no-nonsense manner. Because of their performers, Liana trades on being tall and statuesque and Doré on being short and dumpy. But their voices tell an even bigger story, with Dominczyk's musical phrasing of even the shortest sentences telling you who this woman is no less succinctly than the meat-and-potatoes drawl Dowd employs. And when circumstances require the two to tie new emotions to the pre-existing instruments, the disjointedness could not be more pronounced.

Dominczyk and Dowd each have a number of fraught speeches, which they negotiate with a bitter conviction that commands your attention no less than the characters', and have so fully investigated these women that taking permanent sides with one or the other is not exactly possible. (Given the nature of what they're arguing about, that may be the theatrical achievement of the year.) Heck is quite good, too, particularly with respects to the subtle shifts of allegiances he effects in the caught-in-the-middle Marcus. But the role is functionary at best; the play could go on well enough without him (and does; Heck is required in only one of the three scenes).

But if the combination of all the elements (including Rachel Hauck's apocalyptically barren sets, Clint Ramos's costumes, Jen Schriever's piercing lighting, and Leah Gelpe's sound) help ensure that Night Is a Room will be one of the year's most talked-about plays, in addition to likely the most disturbing seen at a mainstream New York venue, it can't maintain its power for its full two-hour running time. The final scene, set in the aftermath of the earlier explosions, stuns not because of the new boundaries it pushes but because of how conventional it is. If it technically follows from everything that comes before, it could also appear in almost any play with this same broad plot outline. What before bruised and lacerated now just nudges and scolds, as if searching for a way to convince us that the preposterous really is an everyday thing after all.

It's not—and that's what makes the earlier sections work so well. Wallace is subverting our expectations and tolerances, daring us to question and judge people who are being forced to endure unimaginable horrors while trying to live their lives the best way they know how. She's implicating us in their downfall, and forcing us to confront our own darker natures and predilection for moral posturing. Who's to say that any of us would react better in similar situations? Because Night Is a Room gives us so much to chew on, the easy-to-swallow ending is imbued with a bitter aftertaste that stops just short of ruining the five-course dinner that precedes it.

Night Is a Room
Through December 20
Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at The Signature Theatre Company, 480 West 42nd Street between Dyer Avenue & 10th Avenue
Tickets and current performance schedule:

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