Florian Zeller’s play, The Mother, is subtitled “a black farce.” If that conjures images of slamming doors and maids running around frantically in their underwear, forget it. The frenzied activity in Trip Cullman’s production is almost entirely provided by the great French actress Isabelle Huppert, and although she strips down to a slip and garters at one point to put on a sexy red dress, it’s not at all lubricious or funny.
Last year, in one of the most exciting Off-Broadway debuts of the season, the Ensemble Studio Theatre staged Abby Rosebrock’s Dido of Idaho, a darkly comic manifesto on feminism in the face of infidelity, and morals in the face of family dysfunction. Rosebrock has now returned with another new work, a character-driven drama called Blue Ridge, presented by the Atlantic Theater Company.
As with Dido, a cheating man and the effect he has on the friendship between two women is at the center of the play’s emancipatory storyline, and both works share an affinity for Tennessee Williams references as well as a certain skepticism when it comes to southern U.S. Christianity. Even if Blue Ridge is lacking the razor-sharp wit and stunning surprises of Dido, Rosebrock nonetheless succeeds in creating six well-rounded characters with believable flaws and inescapable fates. There are few explosions to be found here, but the simmering tensions brought to bear by a strong ensemble of actors under the tight direction of Taibi Magar provide a satisfying status quo; they are a happy indication of the playwright’s continuing growth.
Set primarily in the living room of a Christian halfway house in North Carolina, Blue Ridge opens on Bible Study Wednesday. The home’s newest resident, Alison (Marin Ireland), is struggling to fit in. Fidgety and more familiar with the writings of Carrie Underwood than those of the Apostles, her manic way with words brings an uncomfortable energy to the group. It is also an outward sign of her anger issues. A high school English teacher who took an ax to her principal’s car after an emotional entanglement, Alison is in a constant state of flux between being humorously energetic and dangerous to herself and those around her.
As the story progresses from November to Christmas Day, Alison and her “intermittent explosive disorder” build and destroy relationships with her overseers as well as with her “inmate” colleagues. These include Cherie (Kristolyn Lloyd), a fellow teacher who is there voluntarily to work through her addiction issues; Wade (Kyle Beltran), a guitar-strumming voice of reason making his way through the 12-step program; Cole (Peter Mark Kendale), a deep-thinking Army vet whose previous residence was a psychiatric institute; Pastor Hern (Chris Stack), their religious leader with intimacy issues of his own; and Grace (Nicole Lewis), the optimistic and overstretched manager of the home.
With this boisterous performance, Ireland seals her position as Off-Broadway’s foremost portrayer of put-upon, lower-middle-class Caucasian women. From her slaughterhouse job in Kill Floor (2015, Lincoln Center Theatre) to her role as a Polish immigrant housekeeper in Ironbound (2016, Rattlestick Theater) to her excellent interpretation of a traumatized professor and single mother in On the Exhale (2017, Roundabout Underground), men have tried to break her characters in nearly every way imaginable. This time, damaged already from her relationship with her boss, Alison is triggered by Pastor Hern and his proclivities. The collateral damage includes the end of her friendship with Cherie, emotional tumult with Wade and physical aggression with Cole. Rosebrock’s neat trick here is that none of these characters is actually villainous. Each moves forward with only the best intentions, but they are ultimately undone by their mental, emotional and spiritual frailties. Kendale brings a riveting stoic minimalism mixed with an odd playfulness to Cole. Beltran’s outward calm betrays just enough of Wade’s internal struggles. And Lloyd’s Cherie, trusting and then betrayed, is rendered at just the right temperature. She also provides the ultimate dialect-infused observation in the work’s examination of sex and consent:
Not only does no always mean no, but.
Sometimes yes means juss means, I'm only doin this cause I fill like you'll leave me er cheat on me if I don't--
Cause iss not safe out there, y'all's hillbilly asses runnin around, I don't wanna be single again, / so--
I guess I consent to this act, but.
S'not cause yer special.
Scenic designer Adam Rigg’s spacious living area, set in front of a row of towering Carolina pine trees, seems too pristine and stain-free for a sanctuary that sees so much physical and emotional traffic, although, as Alison points out, “the Yelp review said best in Southern Appalachia.” The production’s final scene takes place in a high school, but Rigg offers no effort here beyond pushing the furniture to the side and throwing some plastic chairs into the middle of the room. Perhaps that’s what a New York playwright gets for adding a completely new locale in the last seven pages of the script, but the audience shouldn’t have to suffer the results.
Blue Ridge plays through Jan. 26 at the Atlantic Theater, 336 W. 20th St. Performances are at 7 p.m. on Sunday and Tuesday, and 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For more information and to purchase tickets, call (866) 811-4111 or visit atlantictheater.org/blue-ridge.
Martin McDonagh is riding high now on the success of his second feature-length movie, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, but he first made his mark in theater in the 1990s with several pitch-black comedies, notably The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Lieutenant of Inishmore, which raised bloodletting to high art. He has a Jacobean gift for slapping together murder and guffaws.
The umbrella title Ghost Stories encompasses two David Mamet one-acts that were produced together 30 years ago by Lincoln Center. Now revived by the Atlantic Theater Company for its own 30th anniversary—it was founded by Mamet, William H. Macy, Glenn Close and Kate Winslet—the productions of Prairie du Chien and The Shawl at the Atlantic’s Stage II are miniatures, yet they bear the signs of Mamet’s hand. They are not just for completist fans of the author, however.
The opener, Prairie du Chien, takes place in 1910 on a train traveling through Wisconsin. As two men play cards (Jim Frangione is the older; Nate Dendy the younger, the Dealer), it’s apparent that the older has been losing and is suspicious of the Dealer. Their play, however, is mere window dressing for the story that unfolds in the other half of the car, where a younger man, aka the Listener (Jason Ritter), sits with a child sleeping at his side. In short order, the Storyteller (Jordan Lage, one of Atlantic’s founding members) enters, and he begins to tell the story of a farmer, a black hired hand, and the farmer’s wife. It is a love triangle that ends violently, but it also has elements that are inexplicable unless one believes in the supernatural.
The farmer, it transpires, suspected his wife of infidelity and killed her and the hired hand, then set the house and barn on fire and hanged himself. The sheriff and the Storyteller rode up and saw the flames; the former attended to the house, where the wife was, and the Storyteller rushed to the barn, where he found the hired hand and the wife, in a red dress, dead. But the sheriff claims the wife was in the house and directed him to the barn. The strangeness of the story increases as the red dress takes a crucial role in the bizarre tale of the sheriff’s demise years later.
Under Scott Zigler’s direction, the description of events unfolds in a leisurely manner, slowly building suspense; for both plays Jeff Croiter's atmospheric lighting contributes immeasurably to a mood of dread and uncertainty. Prairie du Chien originated as a radio play, however, and it depends heavily on dialogue, which Lage’s Storyteller delivers in a subdued manner, sometimes bordering on inaudible. Although a burst of violence—the only one in the evening—brings the story to a climax, the reliance on narration mutes some of the interest.
The Shawl is the more successful of the two. In it, a psychic (Arliss Howard) reels in a woman, Miss A (Mary McCann) as he “divines” why she has come to him and what her problem is. Howard plays the psychic beautifully, pausing and seeming to pull images out of the ether, with faraway looks and soothing speech, always using suggestion to help her reveal points about herself. He is assisted by his protégé/lover Charles (Ritter again), who wants to make a quick killing. “It comes down to confidence,” John, the psychic, explains to him. “They’ll test you. And you can do nothing till you have their trust.” John’s power to read clients rivals that of Sherlock Holmes, but Miss A proves particularly tricky.
McCann (also a founding member of the Atlantic) taps into Miss A’s wariness, yet also displays at times a brisk confidence. The table reading scene is particularly effective, as Howard’s bogus diviner plants the seeds of belief and tries to nurture them the trust of his mark. Miss A has a problem that she wants a decision about, and his ability to read her helps him lead her to it. Mamet has a double twist in store, however, that brings the drama to a fascinating, eerie conclusion.
The one-acts fit together nicely, since both are about what one can trust as true and what cannot be trusted. The search for the truth, suggests The Shawl, may lead to it, but in unexplainable ways. The revival of these one-acts are a fitting tribute to the Atlantic and its co-founder.
The Atlantic Stage II hosts Ghost Stories: The Shawl and Prairie du Chien through June 28 at 300 West 16th St. Evening performances are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday. Matinees are at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Tickets may be purchased by calling Ovation Tix at (866) 811-4111 or at ovationtix.com; or by visiting the box office at 336 W. 20th St. or visiting atlantictheater.org.