By Jacquelyn Reingold
Ensemble Studio Theatre
549 West 52nd Street
What do physics and love have in common? Both provoke endless theorizing that in the end only leads to further uncertainty. Jacquelyn Reingold’s science-minded comedy String Fever picks up the analogy though the romantic tribulations of Lily (Cynthia Nixon), a music teacher who finds herself suddenly single at 40 and unnerved by the ticking of her biological clock. Having all but given up on her musical ambitions and the notion of meeting Mr. Right, she decides to take matters into her own hands by applying for a loan at a sperm bank. Unexpectedly, however, a straight, smart, and seemingly available guy, who specializes in the abstruse branch of physics known as string theory, enters the picture—and with him the hope of a unifying answer to Lily’s riddle of a life.
In a jigsaw of dizzyingly disparate scenes, Reingold’s play attempts to find an appropriate dramatic form for string theory’s embrace of endless contingencies and multiple-case scenarios. Not only does Lily enact moments that occur exclusively in her head, but other characters swim mysteriously in and out of view. For example, Gisli (Evan Handler), “the David Letterman of Iceland,” sends video-postcards to Lily, though it’s not immediately clear what this eccentric Scandinavian has to do with her story. In Reingold’s entertaining, if a touch familiar, theatrical worldview, connections are implicit even if they don’t tend to match our heart’s desire or add up to a comprehensible body of knowledge.
Playing a far less hard-boiled character than her role of Miranda on Sex and the City, Nixon manages to be both charming and unsentimental—perhaps because she’s so convincingly neurotic in her attitude toward her unmarried quagmire. With his golf-ball head and otherworldly accent, Handler lends Gisli a farcical insouciance that contributes to the production’s freewheeling wackiness. The other standout in director Mary B. Robinson’s cast is Cecilia deWolf, who plays Lily’s cancer-stricken girlfriend Janey. Instead of worrying about the nature of her emotional attachments, this staunch sidekick wants simply time enough to savor them.
Alma and Mrs. Woolf
By Anne Legault
Blue Heron Theatre
123 West 24th Street
“Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size,” wrote Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own. But in Anne Legault’s play Alma and Mrs. Woolf, Virginia finds herself mirroring another female of the species—and the reflection isn’t particularly flattering. In Sartrean fashion, Legault locks up the author in a hotel library with Alma Rattenbury, a real-life acquitted murderess.
No amount of hollering or pounding will set the ladies free, so circumstance forces them to resort to conversation, Legault pressuring them to engage in a strained orgy of exposition and disclosure. While the women don’t have much in common save their eventual suicides, they bond over shared cognac and confidences. Virginia recounts her sexual abuse and Alma divulges her extramarital dalliances.
The Quebecoise Legault writes in French, so perhaps some of the stiffness and slight anachronism of her dialogue comes courtesy of translator Daniel Libman. Nor can Legault be blamed for an infelicitous staging by director Jim Pelegano—when Virginia delivers her monologues, Alma stands face to the wall like a naughty schoolchild.
Joan Grant as Virginia and Nicole Orth-Pallavicini as Alma make the most of their high cheekbones and delicate coloring but don’t achieve much success at the creation of thorough character. From what we know of their histories, each woman was quite fascinating in her own right. But Legault’s dual portrait never intensifies or illumines our understandings of either one. Perhaps she ought to have let either Alma or Virginia out of the library and allowed the remaining lady a room of her own. —Alexis Soloski
Bexley, OH (!), or, Two Tales of One City
By Prudence Wright Holmes
New York Theatre Workshop
79 East 4th Street
Prudence Wright Holmes is a small, reed-voiced actress with a fireside charm similar to solo performer Emmet Forster’s. In Bexley, OH(!), directed by Lisa Peterson, this natural eccentric brings to life two stories from her childhood, working hard to theatricalize a rather literary script. Bexley’s first half, “Dr. Sam Is Under Your Bed,” is Holmes’ coming-of-age story, set in the 1950’s “dry town” of the title. She centers the tale around her father’s obsession with a rich doctor charged with murdering his wife. Holmes springs off from the case against Dr. Sam Sheppard to take potshots at the town’s bigotry and ignorance. “What does he need a lawyer for if he’s innocent?” Dad wants to know. Despite a lack of circumstantial evidence, he organizes a veritable lynch mob determined to prove Dr. Sam guilty. Once the doctor is convicted, Dad drives by the prison to taunt the town’s most famous inmate, and years later nearly fires a woman at his insurance agency who believes Dr. Sam is innocent.
Buried under the wacky humor of Holmes’s story is a troubling conflict between arch-conservative father and countercultural daughter. At one point, the tension erupts into a violent food-fight. However, Holmes’s writing skips so merrily along that, after the fight, when a psychiatrist suggests that the teenage Prudence should be in foster care, a shocking pathos suddenly rises to the surface. The questions Holmes leaves unanswered resonate more disturbingly than her somewhat conventional post-war American narrative. Has she trivialized her father’s brutality? Has she revealed the true source of her father’s Dr. Sam obsession? The audience will never know. Averting any unpleasant revelations, Holmes leaves us instead with a trunk full of her father’s medals, as if waving his courage around might neutralize his rage.
For Bexley‘s second half, “African Violet Society,” Holmes abandons her father’s petty anger and turns to her mother’s small-scale ambition. Recalling some of Ellen Gilchrist’s daffier stories, Holmes relates the events that lead to her mother’s presidency of a “very exclusive” ladies’ club in Bexley. These include the failure of the current president to convince the governor’s wife to lunch with them, and the mental breakdown of the interim president. The farce unfolds as the Holmes’s maid, Minnie, becomes deeply involved in the civil rights movement, for which she is nearly let go. Most of the humor in this segment arises from Holmes’s depiction of her mother’s inability to comprehend the changing times. Minnie breaks down after Martin Luther King’s assassination and Mrs. Holmes wonders if she knew him personally. When Minnie complains, “Miz Holmes, you just don’t care anything about my people,” Mrs. Holmes says, “That’s ridiculous! I’ve got a whole dining room full of African Violets!” It may be a sign of progress that we and Holmes can look back in amusement at the racism and obtuseness of rich Eisenhower-era socialites. But judging from current events, the right-wing bigots may get the last laugh.