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This Wide Night

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Alison Pill and Edie Falco
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Writing derivative plays isn't a crime, but sitting through them - particularly when you go to the theatre frequently - can feel like a punishment. Chloë Moss's play This Wide Night, which just opened at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater, doesn't quite reach that level. Which isn't to say that, by not trying, it doesn't try. And were it not for the two stellar actresses starring in it, Alison Pill and Edie Falco, it probably would. But in by-the-numbers appropriation of everything from them to resolution, even those two megawatt talents can't quite make virtue out of vice.

Let's look at its components. A two-hander: nice, simple, and cheap. Both characters are women - plenty of appeal there. One, Marie (Pill), is young; the other, Lorraine (Falco), is approaching middle age's exit tunnel. Compounding that rich setup is the wrinkle that they're both ex-convicts still readjusting to life on the outside, Marie after three years, Lorraine after 12 (for murder).

Of course neither is having an easy time of it. Lorraine arrives at Marie's cramped flat hoping to recapture some of the interpersonal spark the pair had when they were cellmates. But Marie wants to run as far as possible away from that life, and Lorraine's an uncomfortable reminder of it. Lorraine also has a son she hasn't seen in decades, and reuniting with him is another source of potent strife.

Does that about cover it? Oh yeah, there's also the heavy-handed symbolism—in this case, mother cradling daughter—that's mentioned early on so it can be reprised in the waning minutes. And a set (by Rachel Hauck) and lighting design (Matt Frey) that very openly covey the notion that though these women have escaped one set of bars, they've stumbled right into another. Marie is even not-so-secretly selling herself to survive, and her latest man - pimp, trick, it's not quite clear - has been beating her of late.

Yes, every imaginable complication, all the cozily "rough" aspects of Marie and Lorraine's existence is laid bare. And despite its potential power, none of it registers as being in any way fresh.

This is not to say that This Wide Night is a poor play or poorly treated. Anne Kauffman has directed it competently, if gingerly, perhaps heavier on the softness than is necessarily ideal. It's more than solid enough to stick with throughout. It's no way overly emotionally or psychologically taxing.

And it's gracefully acted. Following her relative restraint in The Miracle Worker, Pill is back to her charred-firebrand self, filling out the ratty confines of Marie with a cool, but impatient intelligence, and occasionally unleashing the kind of sputtering rage that makes you understand how Marie got put away in the first place. An utterly deglammed Falco smolders with tender but confused maternalism, her every line fraught with the sense that Lorraine has forgotten how to love, trust, or even just approach anyone.

These are harsh people who need exactly this kind of broken sympathy to come across as what they are: real women desperate to find the road to salvation, but forever milling about spiritual and social dead ends.

But... so what? Moss squanders most of her opportunities, reinforcing most of our ideas and prejudices about post-incarceration life rather than seeking broader or deeper themes. Mother and daughter conflict. Female bonding (and unraveling). The fine line between love and hate. The gentle perils of unrequited devotion. The more rigorous dangers of prostitution, drug addiction, and recovering from either.

Barely a hint, however, is dropped of what any of this means—or should mean—in a modern world that does everything it can to pretend that these minor-league problems don't exist. There is, for all intents and purposes, no commentary at all on our complicity in Marie and Lorraine's strife. Moss' play, then, is nothing more than a slice of life—a genre that tends to be its own cliché unless it's expertly handled. And here, it's simply not.

Too many recent shows have been flaunting convention just for the heck of it. Broadway alone has seen an intergenerational deconstruction of art (Red), withering examinations of post-racial racism (David Mamet's Race) and post-60s liberalism (Superior Donuts), an unforgiving look at how journalists die a little with each story they cover (Time Stands Still), even a large-scale, song-laced corporate satire (Enron). Then there's Next Fall, which Naked Angels opened on this same stage a year ago, with its volcanic denunciation of Christian evangelism in the age of burgeoning gay rights.

All these works - along with dozens, if not hundreds, more from Off-Broadway - addressing time-tested ideas in innovative ways make This Wide Night feel painfully old-fashioned in its dedication to unchallenging challenging ideas. Satisfy as it might, it never thrills, surprises, or repulses, which must be considered some kind of failure for a play that wants only to show us how life tough can really be. Peruse the program and you'll see that the show is dedicated to the women inmates of Cookham Wood prison that inspired it, and that the show spent two weeks touring women's prisons in the U.K. in 2008. Perhaps those audiences were inexperienced enough to require the constant handholding that is this play's sole structure, but it's unlikely to attract equivalent innocents in New York.

This Wide Night
Through June 20
Peter Jay Sharp Theatre, 416 West 42nd Street, 4th floor
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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