American playwrights have always written about family. Our national theatrical identity is inescapably linked to the pressurized generational clashes and tense tribal triangles of O’Neill, Miller, and Williams. Even as legions of later playwrights altered the dramatic landscape, they continued to stage families in conflict. Go to the theater on any given night and you’ll find parents, sons, husbands, and wives destroying each other’s psyches and unearthing buried trauma on stages all over town.
So it comes as no shock that Naomi Wallace’s new play Night Is a Room, now at the Signature in a production directed by Bill Rauch, is about familial bonds: between a husband and wife and the husband’s mom, to be exact. Wallace’s strangely overwrought play, which puts such heavy pressure on these relationships that they crack, forces the viewer to wonder why exactly we are so obsessed with the question of kinship: the twists and turns of primal relationships; the myriad ways our loved ones can hurt us. Wallace also makes you wonder how much new there really is to say on the subject.
Liana (Dagmara Dominczyk), a successful, well-dressed advertising executive, has an exciting idea for husband Marcus’s fortieth birthday — and it’s not a new car. Liana has tracked down the biological mother who gave Marcus (Bill Heck) up when she was fifteen; Liana now plans to reunite her husband and mother-in-law on the big day. Surprise! As it turns out, though, even the best-laid plans for orchestrating mother-and-child reunions are subject to the pesky feelings of the actual people involved. After she tracks down Doré (Ann Dowd), a frumpy cleaning lady with a grimly ironic view of life, and convinces her to meet her long-lost progeny, Liana’s the one who ends up surprised. Relationships twist and morph, events take a turn for the Freudian, and a gnarly new family arrangement begins to take shape.
Dominczyk and Dowd carry the show, aided by a somewhat blank-faced Heck. From the start, Dominczyk plays up Liana’s polished slickness, delivering each line with one eye on her intended audience, showing us a glossy exterior just waiting to be shattered by devastating news. Such tidings will ultimately be delivered by the unabashedly blunt Doré, with her sensible slippers and penchant for stating unattractive truths, abetted by the submissive Marcus.
And, as the play goes on, the unattractive truths take over, propelling Wallace’s characters toward uglier and uglier behavior for its own sake, in an oddly crude effort to plumb the depths of human nature’s darker side. How thoroughly can we upend a regular suburban life? How nasty can we be to the people we love?
The thing is, even the most primal of family relationships have their limits as stand-ins for the problems of living in the world. After a while, Night Is a Room becomes a prolonged exercise in abjection, an exploration of just how poorly people can treat themselves and each other — as if inner truth can only be found in emotional turmoil. Wallace’s insistence on testing the taboos in spousal and filial relationships eventually begins to feel oddly normative: an exaggerated wallowing that makes us long for the way things always were.
But, because this is an American family drama, this is the way things always were.
Night Is a Room
By Naomi Wallace
Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street