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Theatre in Review: No Good Things Dwell in the Flesh (ART/New York Theatres)

Kellie Overbey. Photo: Maria Baranova

In her new play, Christina Masciotti places a captivating character at center stage, then leaves her stranded, dramatically speaking. The title of No Good Things Dwell in the Flesh -- an apparent allusion to St. Paul's letter to the Romans -- hints at a kind of moral paralysis but Agata, the heroine, is, conversely, a woman of decision, surprised by nothing life throws at her, and ready to roll up her sleeves and cope with any eventuality. Even when locked inside a play in which nothing happens, she's fascinating.

And, as played by the always-welcome Kellie Overbey, Agata is a steady source of crisp, acidic amusement. A Russian tailor operating out of a shop in Queens, she is both a wizard of her craft and a kind of Slavic Ann Landers, handing out bitter life lessons culled from her own dark history. (The latter includes her father's detention in a concentration camp, a youth spent living under the Soviet regime, marriage to an alcoholic, and physical separation from her daughter, a banker in the UK.) Speaking in a broken English that sounds like a flurry of bad-news telegrams, she makes mincemeat of anything that carries a whiff of nonsense; her accent, thick as borscht yet thoroughly intelligible, carries its own baleful notes of doom. To a young associate mooning over Hugh Grant, she snaps, "That guy? British asshole, like Winston Churchill." Casting a malediction on a certain online rating service, she mutters. "Yelp community 100% corrupted place," comparing it to nothing less than the KGB in its command of dirty tricks. Dispensing altogether with the idea of romance, she pronounces, "Instead men, I prefer spend time with my cat. Very independent, too. Don't want to be too much held. I respect that."

You might wonder why Agata hasn't gone out of business, so curt is her approach to customer relations. (She brutally dismisses anyone asking for an alteration of which she doesn't approve; no "crimes of fashion" for her.) But she has more work than she can handle. A civil engineer in her home country -- a career she was unable to continue here -- she doggedly acquired her sewing skills, achieving an intensive professionalism that is almost spiritual. Her attention to detail is a kind of gift that she gives to others, a strange state of grace that keeps her grounded in a world ruled by calamity.

Delightful as she is, however, the play is marked by a creeping sense of stasis. Masciotti suggests that time is running out on Agata -- she is sick of constant hard work, her rent is going up, and she must decide whether to renew her lease - but her situation has little sense of urgency. (The play never suggests what this workaholic, lacking friends or loved ones nearby, might do with her newly acquired free time.) Mostly, she interacts with Janice, the fantastically indecisive FIT student who serves as her assistant, and, if Agata has anything to say about it, her successor. Janice is the virtual opposite of Agata -- weak-willed, given to panic attacks, a magnet for various Mr. Wrongs -- and the idea that she could run anything seems laughable. "You have business degree," Agata says, encouragingly. Yes, and it's a miracle Janice gets out of bed in the morning. Hovering on the sidelines is Vlad, Agata's former lover, who suffers from some form of mental illness. The role is oddly conceived -- initially a humorous nuisance, he gradually becomes more menacing -- and his presence often seems strangely irrelevant in the play's overall scheme.

According to the press materials, Agata has a real-life counterpart, with whom Masciotti became fascinated, drawing her out at length and using her history as a dramatic subject. The playwright's obvious affection for her protagonist has left her dramatically tongue-tied, however. This act of homage is little more than a series of brief episodes designed mostly to give Agata plenty of room to opine outrageously and demonstrate her considerable psychological armor.

Director Rory McGregor keeps things moving efficiently but he can't work up drama where none exists. Still, he gets fine work from Carmen Zilles, who goes a long way toward making Janice, the ultimate mouseburger, tolerable, and from T. Ryder Smith as Vlad, whose deterioration, is both disturbing and terribly sad.

The production design shows how clever artists are not deterred by a limited budget. Brendan Gonzales Boston's set uses a few well-chosen pieces of furniture and a glass wall to evocatively suggest the interior of Agata's store; the dominant scenic element, a highly placed clothes rack that spans the width of the stage, figures in a neat coup de théâtre that cues the next stage of Agata's life. Stacey Derosier's highly sensitive lighting evokes several times of day when not effortlessly slipping into fantasy states. Johanna Pan's acutely observant costumes give each character a sharp profile; check out the flowered jeans that Vlad wears as a kind of provocation to Agata. Brian Hickey's sound design is harder to judge, as on the night I attended there were a few glitchy cues as well as aural competition from (I think) the theatre's noisy air delivery system. But his choice of musical selections by the British electronic artist Four Tet and the Dionne Warwick version of "Walk on By" seem particularly well-chosen.

Masciotti is obviously talented, with a gift for dialogue -- I treasure Janice's comment, "I'm throwing my back out cringing" -- and I imagine we'll be hearing from her again. Next time, one hopes, she'll weave a little more conflict into her dramatic fabric. Meanwhile, Overbey is providing her with excellent support. --David Barbour

(11 September 2023)

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