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The Diamonds live in a large unfurnished house in Ridgewood, N.J., where the oldest sibling, Matilda, devotes herself to protecting her siblings. Mummy, more absorbed in how she is viewed by the neighbors, says, "Appearances count, Matilda. This is the good side of town. People belong to Grace Episcopal. Their children are thin, blonde and cleanly.". Mummy feels none of her children live up to these images.
The mother is never seen but she is definitely the elephant in this room — a cruel, selfish, obese single mother whose husband apparently left them long ago. The children are especially fearful today because on Thanksgiving, Mummy was poisoned and hospitalized. Now she is about to be released and the children know they have to face her wrath. Play Nice! takes place on the days before and after Thanksgiving.
Isabel and Luce are play-acting in the attic, feeling safe because their mother is too obese to climb the ladder. They have a particularly close bond and connect by pretending. Isabel is a sharp, observant girl, an over-caffeinated master of imagination who, when overwhelmed, retreats into a cardboard box marked "Mad Rabbit". It is Isabel who takes the initiative, urging her siblings to take turns donning a huge dress and mimicking Mummy. These segments illustrate the incidents in the home that have driven each child to excessive survival modes.
Luce is a sensitive teen, a member of the all-girl flag-waving squad. He misses his father, wishing he had his encouragement. He is uncomfortable being the only male in the house. While fantasy is Isabel's best defense and Matilda is the protector, Luce is obsessive, absorbed with the preciseness of the flag-waving squad despite his mother's criticisms and threats to send him to a mental institution.
She finally does just this, dropping him off near the hospital with a note to tell the doctors he is confused about his sexuality. She then speeds away and after reading her note, Luce refuses to enter the facility. He disappears to a private space a place that is "conductive, inspirational, calm, filled with the spirit of movement". It is in this space, real or imagined, that he connects with Joanie (Debby Brand), a hardened but desperate homeless poet. Joanie is the means of bringing some conclusion to the play.
Lauren Roth plays Matilda with a weary persistence as she searches for any realistic way to bring the abuse to an end. quot;Pretend is not how I figure things out," she tells Isabel. Laura Hankin portrays the animated Isabel, mixing childishness and manipulative intuition before showing the beginnings of maturity after she learns the truth about Mummy's poisoning. As the tortured Luce, Andrew Broussard is intense but shows joyful abandon when marching and waving his flag.
The flow of the dramatic direction by Joan Kane is enhanced by Bruce Al Kraemer's lighting and Ryan Kilcourse's sound effects. Jason Simms designed an attic with childish simplicity and props, an atmosphere for make-believe. Cat Fisher designed ridiculously childish clothes for Isabel and sloppy throw-ons for Matilda, who wears eyeglasses with tape holding the frame together. Joanie is ragged and seems to be coated with grime.
Inspired by Jean Genet's The Maids, Play Nice! is a dark fairy tale with an ebb and flow of theatricality and gritty realism that taxess your imagination. However, it is often confusing and disorienting, which diminishes the drama in this dysfunctional family. Not incidentally, the song, "Puff, the Magic Dragon" opens and closes the play, singing its story of the child who grows up, loses his innocence, and leaves his imaginary pet dragon alone and powerless.