I'm not sure whether Chad Beckim's 'nami is a good play, but its inaugural production is a very good piece of theater. With layered and passionate performances, evocative and polished design elements, and expertly paced and composed staging, Partial Comfort Productions has demonstrated that ambition, craft, and determination can overcome the logistical and financial difficulties that so often lead us to make excuses for unfinished, substandard work from Off-Off-Broadway companies. The play's plot is difficult to summarize. Publicity materials describe it as the story of two women who begin to suspect that their landlord is going to sell a young Indonesian refugee girl into sex slavery, but this plot point comes fairly late in the play's action. Beckim's play is really a character study of two downtrodden couples who live next door to each other in a rundown apartment building in a very bad neighborhood. The story's more sensational elements are actually among its weakest, while the carefully observed interactions between four shattered people are what lends this piece its considerable power.
At the core of the production's success are the actors, particularly the women. As Keesha, Quincy Tyler Bernstine turned a series of stereotypes on their heads by balancing the aggressively gritty backstory of her former prostitute/recovering crackhead character with grace, intelligence, and strength. Eva Kaminsky, as the psychologically unstable Lil, conquered a series of challenges to her technique—in addition to her emotional disorder and paranoia, Lil is sometimes heavily medicated—while maintaining the character's emotional core.
Both actresses dove into the extreme situations and reactions demanded of them by the script while still contributing to the story's urgency and momentum. As a direct result of their performances' discipline and energy, the production never bogged down in onstage histrionics.
Alfredo Narciso and Marc Rosenthal were similarly successful as Roachie and Harry, respectively. Rosenthal in particular stood out, finding a number of quirky but entirely believable idiosyncratic gestures to fully humanize his performance as Lil's beleaguered husband. Michael Gladis, clearly a competent actor in his own right, was a little less successful as Donovan, the slumlord/pimp/crack dealer who rules with violence. He wasn't quite able to convincingly pull together the menace, charm, and entrepreneurial intelligence that are all necessary components of the character; in a daunting, all-or-nothing situation, he was neither seductive nor frightening in a role that requires both in equal measure.
Director John Gould Rubin worked with his design team to construct a convincingly appalling world of barely suppressed desperation that threatened to burst into violence at any moment. Set designer Heather Wolensky and lighting designer Jason Jeunnette integrated their work seamlessly to evoke grunge and dilapidation while achieving a surprisingly beautiful visual poetry. Sound designer Zach Williamson rendered tangible the claustrophobic nature of low-end apartment living by allowing sounds to seep through the walls of the onstage apartments and into the audience, without their sounding canned and artificial.
Rubin and Williamson did make some questionable choices in scene-change music, however, which was set too loud and had little to do with the world of the play. Presumably, these jarring sound cues were meant to further underscore the extended moments of silence that punctuated the production. But, as my companion at the show said, they seemed more like selections from a hipster's iPod playlist than an integral part of the design.
Far too many of this production's strengths were actually solutions to problems built into the script. The playwright has indicated in interviews and press materials that he wanted to show audiences a world they have had little or no contact with, but it's difficult not to suspect that the world of 'nami is similarly alien to Beckim himself. While he delineates the characters with distinct psychologies and vernacular tendencies, too many of the details feel as if they were borrowed from a particularly seedy episode of Law and Order: SVU.
To be fair, though, the strengths of the performances and of the production would not have been possible were there not something beautiful in the text itself. At its core, the play is about people in danger of being crushed under the weight of their personal histories, and finding some hope of redemption in the possibility of helping a vulnerable stranger. With another rewrite to burn away the clichés and the false notes, Beckim may well have a play that earns the beauty and polish of this production.