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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
The central character was inspired by the playwright's grandmother about whom she knew little except that she came to New York and became a sought-after seamstress, who created elegant, finely detailed lingerie for a clientele that ranged from uptown society ladies to downtown ladies of the night. Yet Intimate Apparel isn't a second hand memoir, but a look at some African-Americans like Nottage's grandparents, whose working and personal lives are unrecorded so that the details can only be guessed at by thumbing through anonymous photographs with cryptic captions like "Unidentified Negro Couple, 1905." (A projected old-fashioned photo thus captioned is used to end each act). Now, recorded through Ms. Nottage's imagination, that long-ago era of custom-made corsets and frilly lingerie serves as a vivid and integral backdrop for a drama bristling with complex relationships.
The play can be viewed as a descendant of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, a Broadway revival of which is currently in previews, and in which Viola Davis played Ruth Younger at the Williamstown Theatre Festival's eight years ago. Esther's bittersweet romance with George Armstrong (Russell Hornsby), a Barbados native working as a laborer on the Panama Canal, speaks to the issue of how African-American men's insecurities often cause them to deliver life's hardest blows to the women who've placed their trust in them. But the yearning for love transcends skin color and still results in self-sufficient women's often foolhardy choices. This is also true for the fear of loneliness and social disapproval. The friends who illustrate the emotional universality of Esther's story include Mrs. Van Buren (Arija Bareikis), an unhappily married society woman, and Mr.Marks (Correy Stoll), an Orthodox Jew with whom she has more in common than anyone else.
The play moves forward chronologically in a fairly predictable, well-made play arc. We meet Esther firmly planted at her sewing machine at Mrs. Dickson's (Lynda Gravátt) boarding house for single women is abuzz with a wedding celebration for one of the come and go boarders. Having just passed her thirty-fifth birthday and eighteenth year in New York, the wedding festivities exacerbate Esther despair about her spinsterhood, yet she rejects Mrs. Dickson's well-meaning attempt to make a match between her and a man who holds no appeal. Esther is not a compromiser unlike her practical landlady who at thirty-seven married a much older man whose opium habit she overlooked because he owned and left her the rooming house.
Though Esther rejects Mrs. Dickson's matchmaking, she is intrigued by a letter from the far away stranger who got her name and address from her Deacon's son. An epistolary romance blossoms despite her being illiterate, thanks to writing and reading help from Esther's hooker customer and confidante Mayme (Lauren Velez) and Mrs. Van Buren, her uptown client.
There have been countless such long distance initiated relationships. Some resulted in enduring, happy marriages, many did not. Even if I went into chapter and verse about how things turn out for Esther and George, it wouldn't really spoil anything. Except for the relationship with Mr. Marks the plot, as already indicated, holds few unexpected twists. The rewards yielded from this play have less to do with surprises than seeing the six sterling actors transform Nottage's characters into flesh and blood people.
Viola Davis's towering portrayal of the golden-fingered but romantically all thumbs Esther is another in a growing list of virtuoso performances. Russell Hornsby's George is at once appealing and appalling, though his line delivery sometimes falls short of total clarity. The always satisfying Lynda Gravátt is better than ever as the kindly, outspoken Mrs. Dickson. Strong support also comes from Lauren Velez as Mayme, another detoured dreamer who rationalizes her trade with the nightly opportunity it affords her to sing and Aarija Barekis as the rich white woman who is happier in Esther's company than anyone else's -- until, loneliness and alcohol lead to her overstepping the boundaries of the friendship.
Corey Stoll is potently endearing as Esther's most unlikely friend, the orthodox Jewish Orchard Street fabric merchant, Mr. Marks. Their shared love for fine fabric is fraught with feelings as tightly corseted by convention as the waistlines of Esther's customers. The piece of rich Japanese silk that Esther takes home from his store is a dramatic device that in less skilled hands would come off as a cliche. Instead, Nottage has that silk cloth metamorphose from its brown paper wrapping into a luxurious wedding present, then into a gift of betrayal, and, finally, come full circle to underscore the pattern of minor and major changes in each of the characters.
Daniel Sullivan has directed Intimate Apparel with the same appreciation for the subtleties of its relationships as Esther and Mr. Marks have for the feel of a piece of fine material. His non-kitchen sink staging is a comfortable fit for the script's well-made play structure. As the seams of Esther's garments are sturdy yet invisible to the naked eye, so the shifts in location -- often in the middle of a conversation -- are accomplished organically and without bumpy seams.
Derek McLane has filled the spacious stage with just enough set pieces to evoke the title and the various locations: Dress forms that seem to be floating in space. . . Esther's sewing machine . . .a small upright piano for the bordello. . . a variety of beds, including one that turns into the fabric display table, and more lavish four posters for Mayme's and Mrs. Van Buren's boudoirs. Costume designer Catherine Zuber has obviously studied the period to create the lush undergarments and handsome outer wear. Hugh Wheeler's music and Allen Lee Hughes' lighting design round out the production's visual and oral assets.
In Esther Mills Nottage has created an authentic character. She could easily be the first in a series of plays about African-American women facing turning point 35th birthdays at some equally pivotal stage of American history.
Though Intimate Apparel ended up as an also ran in this year's Pulitzer Prize contest (the prize going to I Am My Own Wife), it has collected two distinguished awards, the Francesca Primus Prize of the American Theatre Critics Association and the American Theatre Critics/Steinberg New Play Award. This well acted, tantalizingly beautiful New York premiere should win the prize that counts most: an enthusiastic audience.
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