Abby Rosebrock is a different kind of triple threat. As a playwright, she brings an invigorating new voice to the stage with the debut of her comedy-drama Dido of Idaho, at the Ensemble Studio Theatre. As an actor in her own play, portraying a former beauty pageant contestant in crisis, her comic timing is precise. And as a practitioner of stage combat, “threat” is too gentle a word for her character who, when faced with a challenge to her domestic security, brandishes a razor-sharp pair of cuticle scissors.
During two acts, separated by a lengthy intermission, Dido careens from high-minded laughs to cutthroat rage to soft-edged dreamscape with Rosebrock embracing feminism even as she skewers it. She takes the work of Virgil, spikes it with shards of Edward Albee, doses it with a shot of Tennessee Williams, then shifts that whole male canon of Western thinking into a female perspective. The result is a crash course in self-respect and surviving betrayal, be it romantic, familial, or self-inflicted.
The performance begins à la Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as the liquor flows at the home of a college professor. Michael (Curran Connor), a University of Idaho English instructor, is trading barbs and sexual tensions with the tipsy Nora (Layla Khosh), as they listen to the strains of Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, the opera based on a story from Virgil’s Aeneid. This drunkenly funny scene of domesticity takes on an edge when it is revealed that Nora is Michael’s mistress, not his wife. Soon enough, the parallels between Nora and the ancient Dido (also the inspiration for Christopher Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage) begin to accumulate. In Virgil’s tale, Dido is romanced by the Trojan War hero Aeneas. She mistakes his lust for true love. He leaves and marries a lesser woman. Dido takes her own life. Similarly, Nora supposes that Michael loves her and will save her from “this godless, porn-addicted generation, and the predators and all the Idaho Republicans of Tinder.” But, late for class and having set a tragedy in motion, he is out the door. Rosebrock never bothers with him again.
Left alone, Nora composes an email to her mother, Julie (Dalia Davi), containing a progress report on her scheme to win Michael’s heart. In this removed-from-time scene, and in a subsequent confrontation, Nora deals with a talkative if highly judgmental mom, one who holds Southern Christian values but who has found some happiness in the arms of another woman (Dawn McGee). There is a certain The Glass Menagerie sensibility to their interaction, with reality yielding to Nora’s worried imagination. Julie tells her, “There’s nothin’ wrong with you except the things you think I thought were wrong with you.”
An even ruder awakening is in store for Nora when Michael’s wife, Crystal (Rosebrock), comes home to find her passed out on the couch. But Nora, thinking fast, persuades Crystal that she is just a colleague of her husband’s whom he has kindly let stay there in order to hide from an abusive boyfriend. The frantic scene that follows is delicious as Nora realizes what a farce her affair with Michael has been, Crystal begins to believe she has found a new best friend, and both bemoan the problem of maintaining self-esteem while managing a relationship in “this sexist hellscape of a universe.”
But after Crystal suddenly discovers Nora’s treachery, all bets are off. Crystal may be a former Miss Idaho runner-up, but the extreme punishment she unleashes on Nora shows that she is no Miss Congeniality. That the two women ultimately find an uneasy peace, and some type of path forward, is both a declaration of independence and a surrender to the touchstones Rosebrock plants throughout the work, including numerous references to Pat Benatar’s “Love Is a Battlefield,” and the 1990s sitcom, Designing Women, whose characters were “always misbehavin’ themselves, in the service’uh men.”
Given a project full of risky physicality, twisty plot turns and obscure references, director Mikhaela Mahoney and her dynamic company provide a powerhouse interpretation of Rosebrock’s clever script. Connor’s short and sweet patter with Khosh is as loving as it is lying, while Khosh shows off her range in going from intellectually drunk to emotionally wounded while remaining a likable mess throughout.
Rosebrock, meanwhile, is fairly brilliant in walking the line between ditzy and woke, generous and vengeful. And Davi finds the humanity in what could have been a stock Southern character, with sturdy support from McGee. The production was developed under the guidance of EST’s Youngblood collective, for playwrights under 30. Given this strong premiere, Rosebrock seems on the path to success enjoyed by other Youngblood alumnae, such as Annie Baker, Lucy Thurber and Amy Herzog.
Dido of Idaho runs through April 8 at Ensemble Studio Theatre’s Curt Dempster Theatre (549 West 52nd St., between 10th and 11th avenues). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Mondays and Wednesday through Saturday, and at 5 p.m. Sunday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are available at http://www.ensemblestudiotheatre.org/current-season-1/2018/5/9/dido.