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Theatre in Review: Morning Sun (Manhattan Theatre Club/City Center)

Edie Falco. Photo: Matthew Murray

In Morning Sun, you will find out everything you might want to know about the central character Charlotte and perhaps a little bit more. The details include up-and-down relationships with her mother and daughter, her job as a hospital receptionist, and two long-term partnerships with very different men. Indeed, you find out so much that nothing stands out; playwright Simon Stephens has chosen to give us the measure of one woman's life, the good and bad, leaving it to you to sort it all out.

We seem to be in an era of plays that cover the totality -- or at least a good chunk -- of lives in rolling narratives that leave little room for drama. Manhattan Theatre Club epitomized the genre in 2019 with My Name is Lucy Barton, a solo piece that took the title character from childhood deep into middle age. Only last week, Irish Rep opened A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, in which the narrator describes her hardscrabble upbringing and coming of age. Both are adapted from well-reviewed novels and if one is more successful than the other, they share a literary sensibility that doesn't make use of the theatre's specific tools. (You can probably put Tracy Letts' Mary Page Marlowe in this category, too.)

Morning Sun takes a more theatrical approach: Edie Falco plays Charlotte, a New Yorker whose unremarkable life is set against the colorful backdrop of Greenwich Village from the 1950s to the day before yesterday. This is not a solo show; the action is additionally filtered through the sensibilities of Charlotte's judgmental mother Claudette (Blair Brown) and her sometimes rudderless daughter Tessa (Marin Ireland). (Brown and Ireland also take on other roles.) Two of these three characters are dead, yet there they are, occupying the same neutral space -- more about that in a moment - offering up Charlotte's tale with plenty of side commentary.

Charlotte is raised in Greenwich Village at a time when the neighborhood still accommodates members of the working class; growing up in the 1970s, she finds employment at St. Vincent's Hospital and partakes of what the city has to offer. After a drunken night with an airline pilot picked up at White Horse Tavern, she becomes pregnant. Choosing to keep the baby, she eventually moves in with Brian, a museum guard, who hits her and cheats on her while openly coveting her mother's 11th Street apartment. Breaking up with him, she makes a much happier alliance with Eddie, who delivers medical supplies. Because of his passion for the outdoors, they end up in Colorado but, even with her relative contentment -- away from the city, she can't help feeling a bit marooned -- she must face the inevitable erosions of age. Through it all, she maintains her hard-drinking ways.

Put into a novel and rendered with the kind of detail that prose can accommodate, Charlotte's story might acquire a certain poignancy and sweep. Onstage, she never quite comes to life. Nor, really, do Claudette and Tessa. They constitute a trio of kibitzing voices, often lively but not terribly engaging as individuals. The opening sequence, which establishes the convention of Charlotte reliving the past with the others, is staged by director Lila Neugebauer in such low-key fashion that one immediately wonders if drama is on the agenda at all. The moments of conflict that do flare up -- when a friend pointedly drops Charlotte in disapproval of her single motherhood, or when Claudette condemns, in no uncertain terms, Charlotte's raising of Tessa -- come out of nowhere, vanishing quickly and making little lasting impact.

What gives Morning Sun much of its flavor is its eye for Greenwich Village lore. There are cameo appearances by Jane Jacobs and Joni Mitchell. We hear about the infamous Weather Underground bombing in 1970 and the look of the streets after 9/11 when buildings were covered with flyers of the missing. One reason for Charlotte's boozing is the stress of working in St. Vincent's in the '80s, when hordes of terrified young men are taken in, baffled by symptoms for which there is no treatment. The text is dotted with references to such current Village delights as Van Leeuwen ice cream, Murray's Bagels, and the WXOU Radio Bar.

Whether all this adds up to a play will be matter of debate, but the later scenes drag noticeably, and when actresses of this caliber don't make a strong impression, something isn't clicking. One wonders what drew Stephens to this material and what he is trying to say with it. The name of the painter Edward Hopper is evoked frequently -- the play's title is taken from his painting of the same name, depicting a woman looking contemplatively out her bedroom window -- leaving one to guess that maybe the playwright is looking to evoke the inherent mystery of ordinary lives. But Morning Sun would benefit from the haunting qualities of Hopper's work.

Aiming for a kind of Edward Hopper emptiness is the set, by the design collective dots. A play loaded with specific time-and-place details unfolds in a strangely anonymous space resembling (perhaps) a church basement sparsely furnished with a few household items. It's an odd, off-putting approach. Lap Chi Chu's lighting provides a series of evocative, even Hopper-esque, time-of-day looks but at times he creates distracting effects with the practical units built into the set's ceiling; too often, I had light in my eyes. Kaye Voyce's costumes and the sound design by Lee Kinney and Daniel Kluger are fine.

Fans of these skilled actresses will inevitably be drawn to Morning Sun and perhaps others will enjoy its feel for Village history. Still, this is a surprisingly thin piece of work in a low-key, almost drowsy, production. The theatre is back, post-pandemic, but in many of this season's new plays, drama is lagging. --David Barbour

(24 November 2021)

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