Rinne Groff is an embezzler of languages. She works her way inside arcane idioms and takes them for her own use. She redirected the lingo of air traffic controllers into a comic consideration of personal and political power during the rise of Reagan in Jimmy Carter Was a Democrat. She appropriated the abstract jargon of number theory in The Five Hysterical Girls Theorem, her ambitious exploration of creativity set at the dawn of the 20th century. In Inky—an early play newly revised for the Women’s Project—Groff puts the taunting boasts of Muhammad Ali into the mouth of a young immigrant woman to examine the violent synergy between money and machismo.
“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” chants Inky (Jessi Campbell), bending the words with a vaguely Slavic accent as she shadowboxes in the high-rise apartment where she serves as a nanny. “His hands can’t hit what his eyes can’t see.” Inky, however, both sees and hits: She recognizes what her bosses, Greg (Jason Pugatch) and Barbara (Marianne Hagan), hide from each other to keep their messed-up marriage intact and strikes where they are vulnerable to get what she wants. All the while, she fulfills the role Barbara cannot bring herself to embrace: Inky instinctually and easily calms the baby when he cries; the eight-year-old daughter, Allison, allows Inky to brush her tangled hair. Greg and Barbara may snipe at each other as viciously as George and Martha, but the Greatest is not afraid of Virginia Woolf.
When Inky tries to usurp Greg’s position as family protector and breadwinner—and to teach Allison how to box and shake down little boys in the playground—all family crises come to a head.
Owing a debt to the quietly surging family dramas of Maria Irene Fornes—and even borrowing her wry exploitation of an immigrant’s broken English—Groff twists a realistic domestic framework into a revealing new shape. Inky, however, is not as graceful as her later works. The revelation of Inky’s past victimization feels trite. (How much more interesting if her obsession with boxing is not psychologically justified.) And Groff’s smart critique of the way gender roles are enmeshed in capitalism comes across more through assertion than dramatic action. Still, she’s grappling with an exciting form, shaped as much by the tradition of Albee as by the collagist quirkiness of the movement-based experimental group Elevator Repair Service, of which she is a member.
As Groff has sharpened her style, actors have learned to keep up with her convention busting. In the preview of Inky that I saw, the capable company, under Loretta Greco’s direction, had not yet found the tough, sidestepping stride—as quick and intricate as Muhammad Ali’s—that Groff’s plays require.