Monday, February 19, 2018

Review of "Intimate Apparel"

Life can be like the patchwork quilt that Esther, the main character in Lynn Nottage’s play, Intimate Apparel, receiving a highly satisfying production at Playhouse on Park, has so lovingly created.  The shapes and various sizes of the cloth, the patterns within the design, and the threads weaving their way in different directions can be random or in an orderly fashion just like capricious and helter-skelter life she leads.

The play begins in the year 1905 and focuses on Esther (Darlene Hope), an African-American woman from the south who migrated to New York City in the late 1800’s.  Reserved and, at 35 years of age, she worries about becoming a spinster.  Staying at a rooming house run by a boisterous, prying widow, Mrs. Dickson (Xenia Gray), Esther ekes out an existence as a talented seamstress.  She buys beautiful fabric from a Jewish salesman, Mr. Marks (Ben MacLaughlin), crafts exquisite fashions for a bored, Upper Eastside matron, Mrs. Van Buren (Anna Laura Strider); and frequents the salon of a friend, Mayme (Zuri Eshun), a striking call girl.

Darlene Hope as Esther and Beethoven Oden as George in "Intimate Apparel."

Esther’s life is, one day, suddenly changed when she receives a letter from a George Armstrong (Beethoven Odan) working on the construction of the Panama Canal.  Timidly, he asks to begin a correspondence with the woman.  At first, flummoxed, she reluctantly agrees and an atypical courtship begins, that by the show’s end, significantly affects Esther’s trajectory as well as the other characters in the show.

Playwright Lynn Nottage has crafted a play that brings forth several issues akin to the times.  They are unobtrusively woven into the fabric of the show and include the plight of African-Americans in New York City, religious traditions and taboos, and social mores and restrictions.  Ms. Nottage’s writing is laced with beautiful prose and dialogue.  The show’s strength is centered on the well-drawn character portraits and overlapping storylines and multifaceted structure, which adds a fulfilling, unsettled intricacy to the production.
Darlene Hope as Esther and Ben McLaughlin as Mr. Marks in "Intimate Apparel."
The six-person cast is well-balanced and skillful.  They are led by Darlene Hope as Esther.  The actress has sorrowful eyes that are expressive and revealing.  She brings an understated dignity to the role which, by the end of the production, has grown in confidence and desire.  Her character is a fighter and survivor and Ms. Hope convincingly displays the emotions and adversity she encounters.  Beethovan Odan’s George Armstrong has roguish good looks and a mellifluous voice.  The recitation of his letters from afar are communicated with a vibrancy and passion that are earnest and pulse with the everyday hardships he faces.  In Act II, now ensconced in New York, the actor effortlessly conveys a number of contradictory qualities that keeps his women in the show, as well as the audience, guessing his real intentions.  The other group of actors are purposeful in their roles, but their performances are not as layered as the two principals.  The subtlety and variations in their character’s personas are faintly missing.
Darlene Hope as Esther and Zuri Eshun as Mayme in "Intimate Apparel."
Director Dawn Loveland Navarro has segmented the stage into four, modestly designed, performance spaces, each the setting for Esther’s interactions with characters from the worlds she habituates.  They are conventional, but effectively rendered by Scenic Designer Marcus Abbott. The technique allows the audience to more focus on the character’s relationships within the confines of the small Playhouse on Park boards. The staging of the letter readings in Act I are kept as simple orations and are smartly inserted at different spots on the stage, which adds an understated flow and rhythm.  There is a smooth transition between scenes, which keeps the action flowing unimpeded as the play builds to its melancholy climax.  One of the problems directors at the Playhouse face is its three-sided layout.  This can cause some sightline and hearing issues, which have not been totally solved with this production. 

Intimate Apparel, an engrossing and entertaining production for all audiences, playing through March 4th.

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