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Theatre in Review: Nice Girl (Labyrinth Theater Company/Bank Street Theater)

Diane Davis, Liv Rooth. Photo: Monique Carboni

The nice girl of the title of Melissa Ross' new play is Josephine Rosen and, when we meet her, she seems living proof that nice girls finish last. In fact, her life is starting to look something like a prison sentence, with no time off for good behavior. In her late 30s -- edging dangerously close to 40 -- she still lives with her widowed mother, Francine, in the Boston suburbs. (The year is 1984.) When not toiling as a secretary in an accounting firm, she cares for Francine, who, without evidence, insists that she is ailing; she is also borderline agoraphobic, unless a trip to Brigham's for a chocolate sundae is involved. Josephine has followed this dreary regimen -- get up, fix Francine's breakfast, go to work, come home, fix Francine's dinner -- for so long that she has forgotten what it is like to have desires of her own.

Having demonstrated Josephine's benumbed existence, Ross introduces two characters who will destabilize her routine and send a wake-up call to her heart. First up is Sherry, the office's bleach-blonde femme fatale, a divorcée with a fatal weakness for already-attached men. The ladies bond when Sherry, who has known her distantly for years, pours out her heart about her current boyfriend, a urologist who reveals later rather than sooner that he is "slightly" married. Horrified at Josephine's spinsterish existence ("Everybody should fall in love! It's like...voting!"), Sherry drags her new friend to a singles bar. There, among the crowd of losers downing Fuzzy Navels, Josephine runs into Donny, her butcher, who, just recently, has started flirting with her over the meat counter.

Donny isn't exactly husband material; he is separated from his wife and, like Josephine, is wondering how he ended up in a dead end at 38. Still, they draw closer together, and if their reasons are more expedient than passionate, for the first time Josephine, egged on by Sherry, begins to entertain the idea of an independent life with a boyfriend of her own. It goes without saying that such ideas panic Francine, who uses her expert emotional blackmail techniques to keep her daughter on the leash. "People see your sweet nature and they take advantage of you," warns Francine, who, of course, is doing exactly that.

If you think Ross has some kind of midlife Cinderella saga in mind, think again; she is too honest a writer for that. Inspired by Sherry, Josephine starts to pay attention to her appearance. And when Donny asks her to their high school reunion, things are definitely looking up. But the better she gets know Donny, the clearer it becomes her newfound happiness rests on the most fragile of foundations. Before Nice Girl is over, Josephine has come to terms with her mother's manipulations and her own bleak prospects; what happens next is anyone's guess.

So much of Nice Girl is so observant, so accurate, and so unsentimental that it's a sad duty to report that it doesn't fully satisfy. Ross throws in a doozy of a second-act plot twist, which pretty much scotches everyone's short-term chances for happiness, and there is a teasingly ambiguous conclusion, but too many of the later scenes don't build dramatically. Just when the characters' emotions should be reaching a boiling point, the playwright resets the temperature at medium, letting them engage in long, ruminative conversations that leave one wondering if Nice Girl wouldn't work better as a prose piece.

Still, scene by scene, Ross enlivens an admittedly familiar scenario with a variety of telling character details, which, in Mimi O'Donnell's sensitively staged production, are brought to life by an exceptionally fine cast. Diane Davis, her natural good looks muted by drab "sensible" ensembles, beautifully captures the way Josephine marches through her day, trying to bully Francine into keeping a doctor's appointment; listening, quietly appalled, to Sherry's soapy confessions; and repeating, in shockingly rote fashion, how she dropped out of Radcliffe after only eight months because her father had died and Francine needed her. There's a lovely, touching moment when she stands, alone and exposed, in the singles bar, nervously eyeing the crowd; later, wielding a Lean Cuisine box like a bill of indictment, she unleashes her pent-up anger at a nonplussed Francine. Davis' performance is a thing of many dimensions, the finest thing she has given us yet.

It certainly helps that Davis has three excellent scene partners. Kathryn Kates' Francine, blowsy with her uncombed hair and expansive housecoats, is an expert in the fine art of undermining. Notice how, even when looking away, she is distinctly aware of her daughter's moods. And, when the time comes for her to hand out a few ugly home truths, she does so with relish. Liv Rooth is a skilled sketch artist, as anyone knows who has seen her in some of David Ives' short comedies, but here she humanizes Sherry, who might otherwise be a conventionally conceived mantrap, her heart as tough as the enamel on her nails. She certainly knows her way around a wisecrack ("Do I look like a girl who has high standards?"), but is equally good when shamefacedly explaining why her daughter doesn't live with her. Nick Cordero, best known for his work in musical theatre, is superb as Donny, who first comes across as a real smoothie -- especially when describing a dinner he'd like to make for Josephine -- and gradually revealing layer after layer of confusion and disappointment. Even when Nice Girl seems to trail off dramatically, the people in it make excellent company.

O'Donnell also gets fine evocative work from her designers. David Meyer's setting uses a series of sliders to pack five distinct locations into the tiny Bank Street space; Japhy Weideman's lighting provides each with its distinct look. Emily Rebholz's costumes are true to each character and the Reagan-era time frame; she also provides a nicely transformative look for Josephine when she goes on a big date. Ryan Rumery's sound design includes his own music plus bits of several television shows and Frank Sinatra singing "One for My Baby."

Whatever Nice Girl's shortcomings may be, there is something admirable about the way Ross refuses any neat endings for Josephine. The sight of Davis, sitting on a front porch and looking up at the night sky, reverberates with any number of unspoken feelings. Leaving the theatre, it occurred to me that, today, Josephine would be in her late sixties. I couldn't help but wonder what might have happened to her. If you see Nice Girl, you may find yourself indulging in such thought games, too. -- David Barbour

(27 May 2015)

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