I am leery about attending "slice-of-life" plays. The phrase is credited to French playwright Jean Jullien of the late 19th/early 20th Century, as a goal for those who wished to emphasize naturalism as an antidote to the stiff artificial theater of his era. For me, the phrase had come to mean gritty, often vulgar and clichéd dramas about colorless people "trying to be a somebody" against the odds of their circumstances, and on and on. Yet, how delightfully pleased I am to have attended Look for the Woman, a new play by Christie Perfetti. Look for the Woman, with fine direction by Matilda Szydagis, skillfully elevates and exalts the slice-of-life family drama and generously presents a thoughtful and moving evening of theater.
The play takes place over two days, a wake and the following day of the funeral, in an unidentified small town in Upstate New York, perhaps Oswego, Minetto, or Scriba on Lake Ontario. The area is known for its hardworking families who can take care of themselves, but who are seldom in a position to go beyond that. The play opens on the four Hadlow bothers standing in a funeral parlor, at what appears to be the tail-end of the viewing of their deceased father. They exchange brotherly barbs and the kind of bits of conversation which come up after a day of being required to talk a great deal -- and there is little left to say. There is Buck (Rick Sechrest), the oldest, married to Jessie (Melanie Ryan) with three kids. Lukey (John Carey) is married to the religiously minded Noelle (Naie Knight). MJ (John Carey) drinks a great deal and pines for Greta (Stephanie Anne Ervin), the woman who divorced him several years ago. Completing the brotherly quartet is the youngest, Daryl (Michael Borne [above]), sweet but emotionally immature. They are faced with what is next: dissolve the family iron works business, move on, etc.
On the surface, the action of the play could have served as for the scenario for a black and white "B picture" by an ancient low-budget film studio, such as Republic Pictures -- but these characters are too vividly and at the same time subtlety drawn, too humanized for that kind of cardboard melodrama. Prior to the funeral, a young small-town "hip" girl, Clementine (Lynn Mancinelli) shows up at the home of Buck to introduce herself to the sisters-in-law, and announce that she is young Daryl's girlfriend of twenty-three days, and she is pregnant. The religious Noelle is aghast at the notion of an abortion. Jessie is thrown by the news, but both sense that Daryl (with his lack of emotional maturity) is being jerked around. Later, Greta, MJ's former wife, shows up, and thus a second woman is introduced whose appearance seems motivated by an unwholesome agenda. In the course of the play, the brothers' mother, Vivienne (Elizabeth Bove [above]) is mentioned with a great deal of disdain: she abandoned her husband and sons when Daryl was two years old, and apparently had not been heard from since. The death of a father (the death of anyone really) can be the occasion for the unexpected, both welcome and unwelcome--and by the end of the first act, the bejeweled mother does appear on the scene. Will her appearance be a game-changer? Will she be a healer, or a destroyer?
An element that makes this play so wonderful to watch is that the action and acting is so utterly natural. We have met these characters, like friends of our own family, people encountered in the course of life here and there. The playwright and director have refrained from depicting them as constrained theatrical symbols or character types. There is no posturing here. These are as real as people can get on a stage. Of course, the actors portraying them are all skilled professionals; they would have to be to come across as authentic as they do. Reviewers like to look for and note standout performances, and some seem to feel cheated if a play lacks such a performance. I much prefer the kind of harmonious ensemble that this team has created, where there is not a hint of any player competing to be "the one." Yet all the players have their standout moments in an ensemble sense, which I find greatly appealing.
Look for the Womandoes have elements that could be tightened up, edited, etc. -- but in a fine initial production of a brand-new and hitherto unseen play such as this, there is little point in publicly nit picking, and here is why:
Look for the Womanis what is termed an Equity-Approved Basic Showcase, a category originated and approved by Actors' Equity Association. To quote the AEA Code : "Equity offers this code to enable its members to showcase themselves for industry professionals and to provide a set of rules under which Equity members may participate in the arena generally known as 'Off Off Broadway'." This allows for performances that showcase new plays, new versions of old plays, acting and musical performance, and the like without the complexities of an elaborate and expensive contract production. Showcases must follow precise rules and conditions by the book, which cover everything from limits on budget size, seating maximums, length of rehearsal period, rehearsal conditions, ticket prices, responsibilities of the actors, and many other factors. The consequence of these standards is that Equity member actors in a showcase (and non-equity cast members as well) are assured they will be treated properly and that an orderly production be executed.
Most casual Off Off Broadway theatergoers are largely unaware that they are seeing a showcase with all AEA Code required conditions and limitations in effect. Showcases most often serve as the initial public exposure of a new work or production, to be later revised and further perfected. Applying Broadway perfection standards to showcases is an inappropriate lens though which to assess such productions. It is in the spirit of understanding the constraints of a showcase production that I view and assess Off Off Broadway productions and judge this one to be excellent!
Look for the Woman is a fine play just as it is and well deserves your attendance. As it receives further public and professional exposure, I could very well envision its creators applying the minor adjustments that will enable moving it from an Off Off showcase to a full blown Off Broadway production, and beyond. - Jay Reisberg
photo: Matilda Szydagis
Through Thursday, Friday and Saturday, March 22-24 at 8 pm and Sunday, March 25 at 3 pm
Richmond Shepard Theatre: 26th Street at Second Avenue
Mr. Reisberg is a UCLA film school grad, professional singer, comedian, assistant to the founder of New York's Love Street Theatre, and bon vivant at large.