The idea of a picaresque narrative that follows the adventures of an object rather than a human being is a cinematic invention. Its first embodiment that I can think of, not a precise fit to the pattern, is Julien Duvivier’s Un carnet de bal (1937), the heroine of which sets out to track down the bygone dancing partners whose names are listed on the titular dance card of her debutante ball. Duvivier’s success with this led directly to its follow-up, during his American sojourn, Tales of Manhattan (1942), in which the central object, punningly alluded to in the title, is a gentleman’s tailcoat—which, since this was the big-studio era, has to have a curse on it to guarantee closure to each episode. Much later, the idea turned up, minus curse, in The Yellow Rolls-Royce (1964) and The Red Violin (1998); no doubt there are others I’m forgetting.
At any rate, Michele Lowe has had the notion of transferring this object-centered structure to the stage, and she’s ingeniously combined it with two other currently viable concepts, one technical and one thematic. The technical one is the use of narration instead of dialogue as a medium for drama; the thematic one, vaguely feminist in orientation, is the idea of presenting women’s lives as an infinite range of possibilities. An adept commercial entertainer, Lowe has mixed these elements in String of Pearls to produce a cunning, mildly racy diversion, fast enough on its feet, in Eric Simonson’s astute production, to keep you from ever bringing to full boil your suspicion that there might be a little less to this than meets the eye.
Literally, in fact, there is almost nothing onstage to meet your eye, other than the four excellent actresses of Simonson’s cast, except for a few drapes and pedestals, and of course the title object, as it passes from hand to hand and incident to incident. We start with the story of the necklace’s initial acquisition, which boldly involves a lewd pun on a slang term that I last heard downtown in Karen Finley’s George & Martha; the audience on East 59th Street, older and tonier, coped with it surprisingly well, probably because it comes via the reassuring elegance of Ellen McLaughlin as a genteel Yankee grandmother, who wants her granddaughter to wear the precious heirloom at her wedding but can’t locate it. We next shift to the story of the genteel lady’s deceased daughter, which explains how the necklace went out of the family, and we’re off and running. Lowe stretches the subject’s possibilities as far as she can, alternating women who know and value pearls with those for whom they mean only money, or nothing at all; she jumps classes and regions and generations—sometimes to a degree that wears her timeline nearly threadbare—and has fun playing now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t with the object of interest. The necklace is broken and repaired, stolen and bartered and sold, given in love, and tossed away in contempt. It lands in a variety of improbable places before winding up . . . well, the alert can probably guess where. Part of the evening’s fun is watching the pearls alter their meaning as the actresses jump from role to role: The object that’s a vindication for one woman is an insult to another, to a third a chance of escape from a nightmarish life.
It isn’t easy to sustain the degree of invention such an event requires, and Lowe’s writing flags from time to time. She dwells on some digressions longer than required, or forgets which of her chronicle’s many environments she’s writing about. Once or twice, too, we get a feminist elbow in the ribs; she might trust us to get the point without the nudge. But these are smallish complaints about an evening that is largely, on its light level, both good work and good fun.
Like Lowe’s writing, her cast sometimes shows a little wear at the more extreme twists of this elaborately wound tale: Strong personalities are precisely the kind that don’t stretch in every direction, and Simonson has assembled four of the most distinctive such personalities in town. With 28 roles to divide among them, they get plenty of aesthetic stretch, and each has more than a few shining moments: Sharon Washington as a no-nonsense divorced mom and a forlorn undertaker’s assistant; Mary Testa as a soignée ballet mistress and a ferociously earnest lesbian gravedigger; McLaughlin as that genteel granny and an Appalachian woman disoriented by both Manhattan and her husband’s upward mobility. I was a little distracted from their skill by the discovery of Antoinette LaVecchia, a presence new to me but clearly not to the art of acting: Her turns as the low-key bride for whom the pearls are intended, a blasé executive, a jabbery art student on a plane, and a mother-oppressed money manager win the evening’s acting honors hands down, an impressive feat against such tough competition.