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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Case in point: Melissa Ross, the author of Nice Girl made her playwrighting debut here four years ago with Thinner Than Water ( review ). Now she's back with this world premiere, again helmed by Labyrinth's artistic director Mimi McDonnell. She's also got another play opening uptown next month (Good Stock at Manhattan Theater Club's City Center/Stage I).
The actors O'Donnell has assembled for Nice Girl couldn't be better. They portray the play's four characters so engagingly that I became caught up and moved by their individual and tightly interlinked stories, before the problematic time frame and contrivances wormed their way into my critical conscience.
About that time frame. Though set in 1984, Nice Girl seems in the wrong decade, echoing some classic 1950s and early 1960s dramas about ordinary people stuck in humdrum existences. Since William Inge's dramas have been preserved on film and via revivals, you're likely to see flashes of Come Back Little Sheba and Picnic; also John Van Druden's London Wall recently revived by the Mint Theater ( review ). Since Donny (Nick Cordero), Nice Girl's only male character, is a butcher the teleplay or golden oldie film version of Paddy Chayevsky's Marty will also spring to mind — even though the butcher here is tall, dark and handsome, bearing some kinship to one of Neil LaBute's men.
The plot pivots around the titular character, the nice but dull Josephine Rosen, also known as Jo (Diane Davis). However, this is a four-way tragedy of youthful promise gone unfulfilled — partly through circumstance but also due to the emotional paralysis preventing everyone on stage from changing their behavioral patterns in order to make a stab at living the rest of their lives more meaningfully.
For Jo the terminal illness of her father short circuited her finding a meaningful career and personal life towards the end of her freshman year as a Radcliffe scholarship student. Obviously, she could and should have gone back once she helped her mother through her father's illness and dealing with maintaining their suburban Boston house. Instead the temporary hiatus from school turned into years. Instead of a satisfying job she works as a secretary and still lives with Francine (Kathryn Kates), her mother.
As for the increasingly needy Francine, she too is emotionally crippled. Having abandoned her dream of being a dancer for marriage she's allowed herself to slip into dependency which is exacerbated by widowhood. By the time we meet Jo and Francine, the older woman, though still pretty and not really ailing, has stopped bothering to even get dressed. Mother and daughter's long years together have festered into interchanges that bristle with tension and anger. Davis and Kates are terrific in making us pity them for the wasted years and itch to nudge them both to untie the knots in their unhealthy togetherness.
Sherry (Liv Rooth) and Donny (Cordero), the two people who suddenly ignite a spark that might enable Jo to break free from her hum-drum existence are much more zestful and aggressive about having a good time. But they too belong to that Life's Losers club. While Jo has known both Sherry (they work in the same office) and Donny (they attended the same high school), it's only as the plot unfurls that their stories come together.
Sherry's confidences about her love life in the office lunch room somehow create a friendship of genuine liking between both women. Sherry boosts Jo's ego, telling her she's attractive and deserves to experience love ("Everybody should fall in love. It's like voting. It's a right we all should have"). Though love certainly hasn't passed by the fast-talking, smartly coiffed and dressed Sherry, she too hasn't been able to achieve happiness.
Jo's interchange with the recently divorced Donny over the purchase of hamburger meat, sets up the possibility of romance since he's left his marriage. Though Donny is hardly a loser in terms of his looks and personality, he's no longer a golden boy as he was back in high school. His college career like Jo's was ended by circumstance (his pretty girl friend's pregnancy), and the his once promising future turned into a job behind the meat counter in his uncle's grocery store.
The play's being too much like a throwback to another playwriting era is underscored by the fact that there's only a faint hint that we're twenty years into the Women's Rights movement. Jo and Sherry know about Jane Fonda's exercise tapes, but there's nary a mention of Betty Friedan, conscious raising groups in all walks of life.
Still, the social changes that seem to have passed by Jo and her mother, no doubt did play a part in Donny's being once again single but this time less insecure about his image. The urge to get away from "pink ghetto" work places, more than likely inspired Sherry to credentialling herself as a beautician. And she does challenge Jo's consciousness with "We don't haveta be just secretaries anymore and take this bullshit. It's a different world for us than it was for our mothers, you know? We can be. Anything we want. Whadya wanna be Jo?"
I won't go into details about the out of left field second act scene that over stretches the connection between Sherry's current romance with the possible one between Jo and Donny. But the energetic and nuanced performances by the actors and the way Ms. O'Donnell fluidly moves them from scene to scene makes it easy to live with the play's problematic aspects.
The focal point of David Meyer's set is the living/dining room and kitchen of Jo and Francine's modest house. A sliding wall handily accommodates the scenes in the butcher shop and the office lunchroom. Another section of the living room swings around to the front porch. Lighting, costume and sound elements by Japhy Weidman, Emily Rebholz, Ryan Rumery further support the production. Thanks to dialect coach Charlotte Fleck, everyone speaks perfect Southie.
Ms. Ross has not stinted on humor and she's allowed Jo's story to end with a promise of more happiness than at the beginning. But as in her Thinner Than Water, it requires a truly cockeyed optimist to interpret this as a sure to last happy ending.