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Theatre in Review: Night is a Room (Signature Theatre Company)

Ann Dowd, Dagmara Dominczyk, Bill Heck. Photo: T. Charles Erickson.

File this one under the heading "Be Careful What You Wish For." More than once over the years, I've wished that Naomi Wallace would simply write a play. Yes, I know, she has written plenty of them -- One Flea Spare, Things of Dry Hours, and The Liquid Plain, among others -- but even when they present intriguing situations, as they often do, they are generally inert, larded with thick, prosaic dialogue that often defeats the finest of actors. None of these complaints apply to Night is a Room; it is tautly constructed, rooted in a highly dramatic situation, and filled with dialogue that sounds like dialogue. And it is a first-class, 100% Grade A lulu.

Night is a Room begins on a patio in Leeds, England; it belongs to Doré, a sad little creature in her mid-50s who has largely lived her life alone, earning her living cleaning other people's houses. (There was a husband once, but she swats the memory of him away, like a particularly pesky fly.) As played by Ann Dowd and dressed by Clint Ramos, she looks like an apple dumpling in tweeds, her face (and everything else about her) radiating the soulful sadness of an abandoned basset hound. At the moment, she is tensely receiving a visitor, Liana, a fortyish advertising executive, very stylish in an all-black ensemble, who has assiduously sought out Doré, spending two thousand pounds to track her down.

It seems that Doré is the long-lost mother of Marcus, Liana's husband. (As Doré bitterly notes, she was a single mother of 15 and the child was taken from her, very much against her will.) Marcus' fortieth birthday looms and Liana has decided that, as his present, she will arrange to bring them together. Doré is, to say the least, apprehensive that such a meeting might be too strange or upsetting for Marcus. "But that will only be the first stage and it will pass," Liana replies, airily, remarking of a friend in a similar situation, "After meeting with her father, she was able to grow up and embrace the world."

This isn't the only faintly discordant note struck in relation to Liana's marriage. She admits that neither she nor Marcus has been totally faithful, but insists that all that is in the past. "In the beginning, there were a few slips," she says. "Why was it so icy?" wonders Doré, showing a hint of steel. Indeed, despite the marked contrast in the women's demeanors -- Doré is like a whipped animal whereas Liana, with her musical voice and remarkable assurance, behaves like a member of the Windsor family on a diplomatic visit to a Commonwealth nation -- there is a Pinterian give and take between them that is both intriguing and unsettling. "I work in other people's homes; perhaps I worked in yours once," says Doré, flashing a bit of menace. Won over by the opportunity to meet her granddaughter, Doré agrees to the plan -- but she has one request: She wants her first meeting with Marcus to be between them alone. Liana will have good reason to regret her acceptance of this request.

Interestingly, Wallace skips ahead to a few weeks later, when Doré is, for the first time, going to visit Marcus and Liana in their home. (Their living room is in the process of being redone. Clearly, Liana and Marcus, who teaches at a private girls' school and is looking at a promotion, do very well.) They appear to be the most sexually connected of couples, a point that Wallace gratuitously underlines by having Marcus reach inside Liana's pants and manipulate her to orgasm, minutes before Doré is set to arrive.

If you have any plans to see Night is a Room, stop reading this now, because what follows is the play's biggest and most confounding plot twist. On arrival, Doré announces that she and Marcus are in love and are moving in together. This is too much even for the preternaturally composed Liana, as Marcus explains that he and his mother are affected by "genetic sexual attraction." (This is apparently a term currently being thrown about in the worlds of psychology and literature -- see Kathryn Harrison's memoir, Thicker Than Water -- but it is unclear if it is anything more than a fancy name for incest.) In any case, the dialogue includes the most graphic descriptions of mother-son sex that I ever hope to hear.

From here on in, the dialogue quickly turns turgid -- "My heart, now a filthy, contaminated bear cage, when I have finished will be pounded clean, sterilized with a fire hose" says Liana -- and the action, increasingly melodramatic. Marcus, perhaps voicing the collective thoughts of the audience, furiously wonders why Liana ever thought finding Doré was an appropriate birthday gift, before menacing her with a fork. (Liana, brittle to the last, notes that his choice of instrument is inappropriate; after all, there was a knife right there on the tea tray.) To make his point, Marcus takes Doré and -- as we used to say in high school -- plants a big, fat, wet one on her, an act that causes him, to Liana's pain and fury, to obtain a rock-hard erection. The sight of tall, blonde, and handsome Marcus engaged in liplock with his mother is a memorable one, although perhaps not in the way that Wallace intended. By this point, at the performance I attended, the action was being fairly regularly interrupted by gusts of disbelieving laughter from the audience.

Act II, set six years later, in a funeral home, gets squirrelier and squirrelier, with a psychological catfight between Liana and Doré that climaxes in an attempted strangulation, not to mention a plot twist involving a bequest in the deceased's last will and testament that shakes up everyone's lives. The sight of Liana and Doré slumped on the floor, beneath the coffin, is pretty risible. Even more so is their final decision, surely the least likely choice ever made by two characters who can't stand each other.

Even allowing for the notion of genetic sexual attraction as a legitimate psychological condition, Wallace hasn't done a thing to make it even mildly beliveable. Having taken on this dubious case study, the director, Bill Rauch, does more with it than one imagines possible, aided by a cast that deserves much better. Dagmara Dominczyk's work goes a long way toward making Liana's birthday plan and her later disintegration -- she throws over her career and attempts to get on the dole by stabbing herself in the leg -- seem relatively convincing. Dowd's Doré is possessed of a haunting melancholy in the early scenes, but this fine actress is put at a disadvantage later on, when she is made to smugly hand out little homilies about love and desire. One day soon, we must consider why Bill Heck, with his leading-man looks, is so often cast in sexually dysfunctional roles (among them the closeted Mormon lawyer in Angels in America and the tormented bisexual Cliff in Cabaret), but he slips into his newfound desire with a kind of voluptuous surrender.

Rachel Hauck's spare set design works well enough for the first act -- with the patio setting dominated by a fence and a single, half-painted wall and a few furnishings for Liana and Marcus' house, but the second-act funeral parlor is almost absurdly downmarket; it's also unclear why the other two sets are seen stacked against the upstage wall. The scenes are carefully lit by Jen Schriever, however, and, as mentioned before, Ramos' costumes are well suited to the characters. Leah Gelpe's sound design includes a rainstorm and some appropriately melancholy harp music.

Crazy as it is, is Night is a Room -- the title is taken from the William Carlos Williams poem "Complain" -- a welcome development? It's hard to say; the play is the most solidly constructed of Wallace's career, but once again, it seems rooted in theories and suppositions that don't exist outside the playwright's mind, resulting in a work that feels willfully contrived. She also holds the title for author of the season's most unintentionally hilarious dialogue. If nothing else, Night is a Room gives a new and entirely unsavory connotation to the term "mother and child reunion." As one of Joe Orton's characters once noted, "It's a Freudian nightmare!" -- David Barbour

(1 December 2015)

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