Love, Trust, and Measuring Tape

Electrifying Viola Davis adds wattage to Nottage; a far from perfect Match is totally Frank

Viola Davis is a vortex. Here is an actress, beautiful in a way beyond conventional prettiness, who can draw people in while never seeming to play "out." Don't fight it; audiences are just so much flotsam in the whirlpool of her mysterious attraction. There she stands, or sits, or kneels, her face half turned upstage and her chin sunk into her breastbone, and yet the magnetism is palpable. Every eye in the house is turned toward her, every ear is cocked to hear what that soft, mellifluous voice will say next. Davis has exerted such magic onstage before, but she has rarely had a role, a play, and a production to match her in strength. In Lynn Nottage's Intimate Apparel, she gets all three, and the results are—well, can something be quiet and earth-shattering at the same time? Because Intimate Apparel is a very quiet, subtle play, in which Davis is giving the most soft-spoken of star performances, and yet at the end you feel that your whole world has been shattered.

You wouldn't feel this if the world had not first been built up, which is Nottage's achievement. The scene is New York in 1905. Esther (Davis), the heroine, is a seamstress with a special gift for stitching ladies' undergarments. The daughter of freed slaves, who has struggled her way north doing odd jobs till she discovered her knack with a needle, Esther is still single at 35, living in a boardinghouse for single women, spending the years sewing away in her room, while one by one her more marriageable co-tenants are ushered off to their weddings from the parlor below. How Esther finds, and in due course loses, love in a variety of forms is the play's substance. If this makes Intimate Apparel sound like a sob-in-the-throat ladies' magazine story from the era in which it takes place, don't be misled: Nottage has clearly thought hard about the fiction of the period along with every other aspect of its life. She harmonizes her age-old tale with a richness of detail and a nuanced complexity of thought that would not disgrace a Dreiser or an Edith Wharton.

Esther's heart-aching adventures are affected by matters of race, class, money, technology, religion, and such historical events as the digging of the Panama Canal and the Panic of 1903. Even more, they're affected by fundamental human issues, like the need for trust between people, and their concomitant inability to trust and to be trustworthy. Standing fearless on her bedrock of truth, Nottage doesn't hesitate to show us Esther as, at least in part, the author of her own destruction. And she does this, like virtually everything else, with a compassionate avoidance of cliché that, at its height, has the transfiguring power of the era's best writing. Here, if anywhere, is the African American playwright whom one might seriously invite to adapt Chekhov. Like him, Nottage is unafraid to let a love relationship go not only unconsummated but undeclared—a real rebuke to our tawdry time, with its overpowering media pressure to reduce every human bond to either fucking or violence. One of Nottage's few lapses, in fact, comes when a physical affection is declared too explicitly. For the most part, she offers the double astonishment that a play so emotionally sturdy should at the same time convey such delicacy of feeling.

Viola Davis: Mood down, magnetism way up
photo: Joan Marcus
Viola Davis: Mood down, magnetism way up

Details

Intimate Apparel
Laura Pels Theatre
111 West 46th Street
212.719.1300

Match
236 West 45th Street
212.239.6200

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Much of the latter is due to Daniel Sullivan's strong, graceful production, on a set by Derek McClane kept carefully sparse so that details—including the lush fabrics of Catherine Zuber's cunning costumes—can stand out in Allen Lee Hughes's elegantly sculpted lighting. From his excellent cast, Sullivan sculpts sensitive, rounded performances to match Hughes's subtle blends of light and shade. Lynda Gravatt as the good-hearted boardinghouse keeper and Corey Stoll as a Hasidic fabric merchant are particularly fine—but writing that phrase instantly brings back to my mind the pained hauteur of Arija Bareikis as a wealthy customer, the defiant pathos of Lauren Velez as a working girl, and most of all the bitter dignity with which Russell Hornsby invests a role that can't precisely be called the villain's. Nottage's only other lapse, in my view, is that she lets his villainy crop up too readily. Beyond that, my sole complaint is the overly synthetic tinniness Marc Gwinn's sound design gives to Harold Wheeler's music—literally an incidental matter, in an evening in which everything else is excellent, and Davis is sublime.

Match, in contrast, offers only one sublime element: the fun of watching Frank Langella take stage, steal focus, milk laughs, and chew scenery till barely a square inch of James Noone's set is left untoothed. It's almost unfair for him to take such delight in his own shenanigans—the rest of us have to at least try to follow the story of Stephen Belber's pathetic excuse for a play, as factitious as it is dramatically tenuous. Jane Adams acts a thankless role well, and Ray Liotta, though vocally untrained, shows some acting sense in a part apparently designed to make minimal demands, but it's only Langella, indicating gayness by hinging his huge hands like drop-leaf tables, who can whip the script's fatuousness into a meringue of adorable nonsense.

 
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