Like Mother, Unlike Daughter

In just a few short years, Bekah Brunstetter has emerged as a major voice in Off-Off-Broadway theater. With an irreverent tone that takes a skewed glance at themes no less heavy than identity and religion, her works (which include To Nineveh, last year's New York Innovative Theater Award winner for best original full-length play) ask intelligent, intriguing questions about the ways people in various situations affect each other, and the reasons they make their choices. And yet the questions come coated in such humor (usually dark, sometimes naughty), one doesn't even taste the medicine as it goes down. Brunstetter's latest, You May Go Now, is no exception. The play, part of the Babel Theater Project, opens with doting Dottie (Ginger Eckert) teaching her wide-eyed teenage daughter, Betty (Melinda Helfrich), how to bake the perfect cake, as well as instructing her on other customary ways to be a good, subservient wife.

For the first 20 minutes or so, one would be right to assume that Go Now occurs during the 1950s, so perfectly does the tableau (directed by Geordie Broadwater, with a set by Tristan Jeffers) fit a scene from Father Knows Best or a Douglas Sirk film. But Brunstetter provides enough clues to let us know that her play in fact take places in a contemporary time, albeit a world completely unlike any her audience has ever known.

It is also a world that requires constant reorientation. Dottie insists that her naïve daughter land a good husband and do whatever is necessary to keep him, leading one to think that Go Now is about Betty's journey to self-affirmation. Or one might assume that—until Dottie, suddenly and to Betty's understandable concern, packs her daughter a suitcase and banishes her from the house because it is her 18th birthday and time to venture out on her own.

Then, with no time to recover from this whiplash, the play completely reinvents itself when what appears to be the ghost of Dottie's husband, Robert (Ben Vershobow), comes home. The jarring plot twists continue, as Betty returns home with Phillip (Justin Blanchard), a man she met at the bus station and thinks is the one. As it turns out, there is a reason for their sensed connection, one with drastic implications for both Betty and Dottie.

Go Now works as both straightforward melodrama and crazy metaphor, a heartfelt concoction with as many layers to it as one of Dottie's perfect cakes. The focus is on the two distaff members of its cast; Dottie is stripped of her perfect image while Betty comes more and more into her own. The play requires, then, two leading actresses capable of portraying these transformations with all the nuance Brunstetter requires, and it finds them in Eckert and Helfrich.

Eckert has, perhaps, the trickier role, as her nurturing demeanor, especially Dottie's cheerfully chirpy cadences, masks a far more devious edge. She even buoys the character revelations that veer toward the more preposterous. Yet Helfrich runs away with the production, playing a woman-child discovering her own courage in a world getting rapidly more complicated and less dependable than she thought. Her delivery of some of Brunstetter's more perverse lines (just a few examples: "I can't remember if Russia is a continent or a type of fruit," "the boy at the grocery store said his [ejaculate] tastes like strawberries and emancipation") is both humorous and heartbreaking, suggesting the loss of innocence that all young, vulnerable children must undergo at some point.

Broadwater's direction does not always adequately distinguish between the scenes with Robert and Dottie and those with Dottie, Betty, and Phillip. She could provide more of a clue, perhaps through lighting, blocking, or music, that the scenes with Robert do not take place in real time but are going on inside Dottie's head. Nonetheless, Vershobow, as Robert, has a strong presence, radiating judgment and affection for his wife.

Blanchard skillfully portrays every angle to Phillip, whose motivations become clearer in stages. One goes from being afraid of him to genuinely caring for him, which is quite a trick to pull off. Yet somehow Brunstetter forces her audiences to care for each of her characters, flaws and all. Off-Off-Broadway theaters may be small, but this playwright's ideas continue to loom large.

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