Wednesday, 18 November 2015

NIGHT IS A ROOM by Naomi Wallace at the Signature Theatre

     One of the major decisions a playwright must make is what moments in her story to highlight, what moments to leave to exposition and what moments to leave out altogether. The power of Naomi Wallace's gripping NIGHT IS A ROOM is in the selection of scenes to present. Her model seems to be classical Athenian tragedy, where the scenes give the audience the aftermath of momentous events that have taken place offstage. There are also echoes of classical tragedy in the Oedipal relationship at the center of the play and the heightened emotions of the characters. Comparisons might also be made to Arthur Miller's A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE playing a few blocks uptown, but I find Miller's Eddie Carbone a totally unsympathetic character and thus find the play impossible to enjoy on any level. It's another example of Miller's limited, patriarchal world view. Wallace's play is abut the power of desire, the inability to verbalize overwhelming desire and the violent bonds that can tie people together.
     The play begins in the garden of Dore's flat in Leeds. Dore (Ann Dowd), is a middle-aged woman who has a job as a cleaner in a school. At first she seems not only socially awkward but perhaps mentally challenged. Her visitor, Liana (Dagmara Dominczyk), is a beautiful, powerful advertising executive. During the scene we discover that Dore is the biological mother of Liana's husband Marcus, whom he has never met. Liana wants to arrange a meeting as a 40th birthday present. There are little hints of trouble to come in the scene. Liana trips and breaks the heel of one of her expensive shoes. Dore breaks a balloon that Liana has given her. There's an air of condescension in Liana's behavior toward this working class woman and a sense of hidden power in Dore.
     A conventional playwright would give us the meeting of Dore and her long lost son. Wallace instead cuts to three weeks later. We're in Marcus (Bill Camp) and Liana's large Leeds house. Drop cloths are everywhere and the walls are about to be painted. Everything looks tentative. The scene moves from a sexual moment between husband and wife to the revelation that Marcus is leaving his wife to live with his mother who is now his lover. The scene is almost Euripidean in its intensity. Marcus can't effectively express the profound sexual attraction he feels for his mother, but Liana can certainly express her rage and disgust. The two women have another encounter after Marcus's untimely death.
      In NIGHT IS A ROOM Wallace is exploring what is "natural" and whether or when human impulses can be described as "unnatural." Dore describes how the feelings between her and the son she did not see for forty years moved from an almost primal passion to maternal-filial feelings, still close but no longer erotic. Were they going through in middle age a version of the intense bond a mother and infant son feel? Was the marriage of Liana and Marcus more "natural." They felt sexual desire for each other, but what kept them going? After Marcus leaves, Liana loses her personal and professional identity and literally becomes a homeless person. All she has is her anger. Marcus is the unwilling participant in this primal drama. He screams at his wife, "You didn't ask me." Once the meeting between mother and son was arranged by the wife, he lost his ability to control his destiny.
     Memories of dreams and images of nature abound in Wallace's play linking nature and the subconscious. Marcus is connected to trees. There are large flowers in a vase in Liana's and Marcus's house. Dore's garden has piles of rocks. Characters insist on recounting their dreams.
      As you can see NIGHT IS A ROOM is rich, poetic and highly erotic. It is, after all, about the power of sexual desire.
       Ann Dowd is mesmerizing as Dore. Anyone who has seen the HBO series THE LEFTOVERS knows that Dowd is a magnetic actress. She's the best thing on that show and she is the focus of this production. She only has to stand still on stage to hold the audience's focus. Unfortunately, Dagmar Dominczyk's shrill voice and bogus British accent are hard to bear. She makes Liana irritating rather than a woman fighting for control. She is less bothersome in the final scene. Bill Camp only has one scene but he makes the most of it. Other than making a major casting decision, Bill Rauch has directed ably.
      NIGHT IS A ROOM is another important rethinking of domestic drama and the family romance.  

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