May 29, 2010

The Stars Shine in "This Wide Night"

The Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, named for an actress who worked in both the U.S. and London, is awarded annually to a female playwright whose work is deemed “of outstanding quality for the English-speaking theater.” Nominations come in from all over the world but most people, including me, assumed that Ruined would make Lynn Nottage a shoo-in for the prestigious prize two years ago.  Instead, the jury, which that year included such notables as Edward Albee, Emily Mann and Sigourney Weaver, gave the Blackburn to the British playwright ChloĆ« Moss for her two-hander This Wide Night

I knew right then, I wanted to see that play.  And now, the Naked Angels company has given me that chance with an all-star production of
This Wide Night that’s running at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater thru June 27.

Moss was commissioned to write This Wide Night as part of a project to help imprisoned women understand how difficult life on the outside can be. In a note at the front of the production’s annoyingly odd-shaped program, she dedicates the play to six inmates she interviewed four summers ago. I found myself wondering if, after watching the grim 90-minute drama their stories inspired, those women had all appealed for longer sentences.

The play is set in a room that designer Rachel Hauck has made so convincingly seedy that you can practically smell the cheap but ineffective disinfectant used to ward off the rot. The lighting by Matt Frey and sound by Robert Kaplowitz are equally evocative.  

The room’s tenant is a twentysomething woman named Marie who spends most of her time starring at a small, fuzzy-screened television that has no sound because the audio doesn’t work. Her listless days are interrupted when her recently-released former cellmate, an older woman named Lorraine, arrives, clearly hoping that they can be roomies again.

I’m not really sure what the Blackburn jury members saw in the play because not much happens, what does happen isn’t all that surprising and the play’s insights—it’s tough to move on after you’ve been in jail—aren’t really original.  But maybe what their experienced eyes saw is that the play offers one of those rare opportunities for two actresses to pull out all their stops. And it would be hard to find two finer actresses to do that than Edie Falco and Alison Pill. 

Falco, of course, has won fame and a following as Carmela, the mafia wife on “The Sopranos,” and now as the title character on the Showtime series “Nurse Jackie” (her co-star Merritt Wever, looking much trimmer than the junior nurse Zoey Barkow she plays on the show, sat behind my pal Bill and me at the performance we saw). But Falco is an old theater hand who regularly returns to the stage and she is almost unrecognizable and totally
heartbreaking here as a woman who has had everything, including her vanity, stripped from her and so clings desperately to whatever shred of optimism she can grab.

Pill is every bit as good. The actress, who is only 25, has practically grown up on the New York stage, having appeared in some nine plays (and earning raves and award nominations for nearly all of them) since moving here from her native Canada in 2003. Her Marie is a woman-child, and Pill makes her simultaneously flinty and needy.

Both actresses struggle a bit with their working class British accents but they adeptly mine every nuance of these displaced women.  (Click here to see them, along with Moss and the show’s director Anne Kauffman talk about the play.) They are so fine together and so supportive of one another, that I wish someone would offer a commission for playwrights—female or male—to write a whole series of plays for them to team up on.

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