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Theatre in Review: Sandra (Vineyard Theatre)

Marjan Neshat. Photo: Carol Rosegg

The title character of David Cale's new solo piece rashly undertakes a search for a missing friend, an endeavor that puts her in danger of vanishing herself. The intrigue begins when the fortysomething Sandra, who runs a Brooklyn café, learns that Ethan, a gay musician with a troubled past, has failed to return from a Mexican vacation. (Interestingly, before departing, he has told her, "You and I are so simpatico, if I vanish, you'd probably disappear from your life, too.") Soon, she is being grilled by a pair of detectives whose only real interest is in the sometimes-sordid details of Ethan's personal life. Upset over this callous treatment, Sandra, who may or may not be an alcoholic, gets blotto and books a flight to Puerto Vallarta. In the cold light of dawn, she decides to use the ticket, resolving to track down Ethan or, at least, discover what has happened to him.

The action of Sandra jumps back and forth between Brooklyn and Mexico as the heroine, following a puzzling trail of clues, encounters a gallery of characters that includes an affectedly Southern gay gentleman; his cute blonde pickup; a none-too-bright Australian surfer with money to burn; and an FBI agent who acts as a reality check. Her investigation is an amateurish affair that nevertheless involves a number of inexplicably vanished young men, false identities, drug dealing, the Mafia, and a criminal trial at which Sandra is an explosive witness.

While Sandra is trying to discover if Ethan's absence is connected to the unsolved disappearances mentioned above, she meets Luca, a sexy Italian on a sabbatical from his graduate school studies. They instantly commence a steamy affair. So taken is she with her new lover that she summarily dismisses her estranged husband (who, admittedly, is halfway out the door) and neglects her troubled business. But what does she really know about the charming, but enigmatic, stranger, who says he disdains his family's wealth even as he benefits from it?

For much of its brief running time, Sandra recalls the novels of Mary Stewart, the mid-twentieth-century specialist in romantic suspense whose heroines invariably get caught up in intrigue while visiting glamorous vacation destinations. Cale solidly establishes a growing atmosphere of mystery and peril, but he leaves plenty of nagging plot holes, beginning with Sandra's introduction to Luca, which hinges on a barely credible mix-up. As their affair heats up, Cale tries hard to explain Sandra's impulsive behavior but, to any fan of genre fiction, her inability to hear the obvious alarm bells becomes irritating.

Midway through, the narrative switches gears, with the question of Ethan's fate put on the back burner following a series of shocker revelations about Luca. When the FBI agent -- who, in a more conventional thriller, might provide an alternate love interest -- proposes a drastic solution to Sandra's problems, the play becomes an account of self-reinvention. This is a recurrent theme in Cale's work, which include Harry Clarke, a comic riff on The Talented Mr. Ripley, and the autobiographical We're Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time, which explains how the young Cale extricated himself from a familial web of crime, scandal, and abuse. But thanks to some careless plotting -- including the too-convenient theft of a key piece of evidence and the casual use of Sandra's on-and-off drinking problem -- Sandra has serious credibility issues.

Fortunately, Leigh Silverman, a director with a blessedly light touch, keeps things moving without overselling this slick tale of skullduggery. Marjan Neshat's offhand charm and self-deprecating humor make her a good choice for Sandra, finding authentic humor in the character's romantic awakening and conveying a certain vulnerability that makes one fear for her life. But even this distinctive actress must struggle to make convincing some of Sandra's choices. Silverman has also seen to it that the production has a simple, yet elegant, production design. Rachel Hauck's set places Neshat on a postage-stamp stage with sidewalls and a textured backdrop that is pleasingly treated by lighting designer Thom Weaver's subtle, but effective, use of color and side angles. Kathy Ruvuna's sound design provides a handful of ambient effects along with reinforcement for the lovely piano pieces, representing Ethan's compositions, by Matthew Dean Marsh.

Cale remains one of our most gifted storytellers -- Sandra is anything but dull -- but this rather too obviously manufactured piece pales next to his best work. It's like a slick paperback page-turner that you can't put down; even if you don't believe a word of it, you still want to find out what happens. The playwright manages to reintroduce Ethan into the action just before the finale, but it's a gesture that leaves too many plot points dangling. The final epiphany granted to Sandra is lovely, providing the script with a solid set of bookends but, like everything else in this production, it's a little hard to buy. --David Barbour

(21 November 2022)

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