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Theatre in Review: Rinse, Repeat (Pershing Square Signature Center)

Domenica Feraud. Photo: Jenny Anderson.

A difficult subject, of the sort that requires the most sensitive handling, gets surprisingly lively dramatic treatment by a first-time playwright in Rinse, Repeat. In real life, Domenica Feraud has shared some of the struggles that befall her heroine, Rachel, so she clearly knows the territory. But she is also an actress with an acute sense of what works on a stage. What could have been a clinical exercise or dreary informational pamphlet is a classic-style family drama packed with scenes that percolate with tension.

Rachel, twenty-one and just out of Yale, has returned home after months of treatment for an eating disorder; it should be a joyful moment, but, in reality, she is stepping back into the same web of resentments and expectations that precipitated her illness. Her father, Peter, is a former golden boy, his career as an architect stuck in neutral and his trust fund emptied out. As he rather sharply notes, most of the money went to IVF treatments for his wife, Joan, a hair-raisingly assertive corporate lawyer who, even sitting around the breakfast table, sounds like she is haranguing a jury. (Joan's drawn-out and onerous attempts at conception produced Rachel, about whom she feels frighteningly proprietary.) Their adopted son, Brody, a self-described "deportation baby," regards his parents with a chilling objectivity, and for good reason: This is the kind of household in which getting a sports scholarship to Notre Dame is viewed as a second-tier achievement. After all, the boy sardonically notes, "It's not exactly Yale, is it?"

Rachel went to Yale and earned a 4.0 average all four years, for all the good it has done her. Minutes after she arrives home, Joan is on her case to study for the LSAT, arguing that she has already missed one semester of law school, and additional lost time will damage her future chances. "I just don't want you to fall behind any more than you have," she says, her voice filled with the kind of concern that raises hackles. When Rachel acidly notes that she doesn't admire lawyers -- like guess who -- who defend Big Pharma predators, Joan airily replies that their posh Greenwich, Connecticut, life doesn't come for free. Before long, Rachel, under the same old pressures, finds herself backsliding.

Under Kate Hopkins' direction, which finds dramatic sparks in even the most casual exchange, an adept cast brings to life the network of frustrations and neuroses that have ensnared this household. Feraud herself underplays Rachel skilfully, subtly dispatching distress signals that would cause alarm if anyone ever paid attention. Notice how, when asked to sample the stew cooking on the stove, she gingerly accepts the tiniest possible taste; notice, too, the surgical bites taken out of a bagel, each taken with fierce concentration. Her underlying terror is beautifully displayed when, sneaking into her parents' bedroom, she weighs herself, then strips off her clothing, hoping to lose a few extra ounces, and when, left alone with a chicken salad, she uses a paper towel to absorb the dressing. "It's just food," she says, trying to convince herself, but, really, it is a matter of life or death.

Florencia Lozano doesn't in the least downplay Joan's enormous selfishness and capacity for denial. "That girl and I have had a plan since before she was in kindergarten," she says, having urged Rachel to apply for an internship at her firm. And, noting Rachel's regained weight, she insists, "Her heart's pumping blood around her body and it no longer hurts to hug her, so forgive me for not being too concerned about the period thing," meaning the absence of one. But Joan, the daughter of Ecuadorian immigrants, has had to fight for every last thing in her life, and it's not surprising that she declines to look in the mirror and gaze at the misery around her. Lozano's performance is a dance on a tightrope -- egregious behavior flecked with sudden moments of real vulnerability, aggression repackaged as charm -- and she never falters. A wordless sequence, in which, under stress, she raids the kitchen, frantically scanning package labels for nutritional information, counting out a half dozen almonds, and downing a jar of pickle juice, eloquently reveals her deep-seated desperation. Michael Hayden's Peter is a finely shaded portrait of a lost soul, deprived of the family provider role, simmering with anger and prone to making choices designed to damage Joan's self-esteem; at the same time, he is enormously devoted to Rachel, even urging her to throw over law school for the creative writing she so loves. Jake Ryan Lozano invests Brody with a default deadpan manner that nevertheless allows for a wide range of emotions; his initial rudeness comes to seem like refreshing honesty from the one family member who has no agenda regarding Rachel. The one-named actress Portia is a powerful presence as Brenda, Rachel's poker-faced therapist, who, without ever saying so, makes it perfectly clear that she sees through the lies surrounding her client.

Hopkins has worked effectively with her design team, beginning with Brittany Vasta's sleek, expensive-looking kitchen set, which also serves as a bedroom and other locations. Oona Curley's lighting subtly creates a variety of time-of-day looks. Nicole Slaven's costumes -- especially Brody's hip-hop influenced wardrobe, with its eye-searing color palette and Joan's relentlessly chic, form-fitting outfits -- are perfectly suited to the characters. Ien Denio's original music and sound design are solidly done.

Feraud does make a few freshman mistakes, notably a climactic speech by Rachel that has many powerful aspects -- at long last, the other food disorder in the house is laid bare -- but which tries to sum up too much in one fell swoop. (In its bill of indictments, it suggests that Rachel would make one hell of a lawyer.) It is followed by a slightly awkward scene in which Brenda makes Joan read one of Rachel's poems out loud -- largely, I suspect, so the audience can hear it. But most of the time, this is a strongly written piece that excavates the roots of a terrible, intractable problem and refuses to offer easy solutions. Even at their most monstrous, these characters never lose their humanity. This is an impressive debut. --David Barbour

(7 August 2019)

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