Although the term "well-made play" often brings up negative connotations, the genre provides a simple format for imaginative dialogue and a tight plot. Dark Yellow, a new work by Julia Jordan, amply supplies both. The play tells the story of a night of intrigue and sex between Bob, a lonely, aging traveler, and Jen, a waitress at a rural bar. The play opens with a scene entirely in the dark. The only thing the audience experiences is the sound of Bob's voice as he tries to coax Tommy, a young boy, out of a hiding spot. The pair are being pursued by someone, although it is not clear whom. Though the opening rambles a bit too long, the scene ends in an exciting, surprising flourish.
Except for the first bit and a small epilogue at the end, nearly the entire play, about one hour and 15 minutes, is conducted in the next scene, which takes place in Jen's living room. It quickly becomes apparent that she has picked up Bob at the bar where she works. Though she is ready to jump into bed with the older man, Bob seems troubled. He may be cocky (when Jen asks him to tell her something she doesn't know, he replies matter-of-factly that she will be "naked in an hour"), but he's still tentative, and continually pulls away whenever the two draw together.
As the potential lovers play a snappy and imaginative word game of "tell me something I don't know," we learn that they are hiding things from each other, and both are more intimately involved than we might first suspect. The ending presents several twists and turns; some predictable, others not so much. The final scene leaves the audience with a tender if ambiguous glimpse of a kind of redemption following a night filled with sex, violence, and deceit.
This is a play that is invested heavily in characterization, and the characters, for the most part, are strong, though at times there are some inconsistencies. One wonders, for example, why two rural, seemingly lower-class white Americans would be so knowledgeable about New York City, a frequent topic of their discussions. Despite a kind of "explanation" for their shared interest in the city, their fascination seems more a reflection of the playwright's interests. Also, Bob's diatribes have him drifting between philosophy professor and lowlife a bit too much.
Still, Elias Koteas is superb as Bob—at times aloof and timid; at others, reckless and menacing. He has a great ability, through all of his bluster, to come across as someone who is deeply questioning his life choices. Tina Benko, as the attractive and self-assured Jen, portrays a woman who knows what she wants and is appropriately startled by the evening's surprising revelations.
Jordan is very much in control of her craft. Her dialogue is pat and witty, and one-liners abound. At one point, Bob notes, "I'm just trying to get into your bedroom, not Carnegie Hall." To which Jen replies that he should have gone home with her co-worker, who is "younger and prettier, which is a pretty good combination in the middle of nowhere." Also, there is a tight economy of plot, so that every piece of the story is tied together neatly at the end.
To that end, Dark Yellow is a straightforward work containing a relatively easy-to-follow story with a clear beginning, middle, and end. It is playing in the Studio Dante, a postage stamp of a theater with a richly decorated interior—one suspects that this is the kind of show the venue specializes in: well-crafted, traditional plays that are more like Off-Broadway and maybe even Broadway productions than the more experimental ones often found Off-Off-Broadway.
The set design, especially to those accustomed to the generally low-budget standards seen Off-Off-Broadway, is opulent. The doors, ceilings, appliances, and fixtures are all real. Jen's living room appears exactly as one would expect: quaint and well kept, though perhaps a bit expensive for a country waitress. It is obvious that a considerable amount of time and skill went into this lavish setting.
Like a poet who chooses formalism over free verse in order to feel free inside an already established structure, Dark Yellow creates an entertaining experience within the narrow bounds of a well-made play.