Every so often a playwright has two plays or even more open almost simultaneously. The scheduling coincidence (?) tempts a more taut assessment of where the playwright is in his or her career.
Melissa Ross has just offered the enticing sizing-up opportunity. Only a month or so ago her accurately titled Nice Girl, produced by the Labyrinth, proved to be an appealingly sympathetic look at a character attempting to get a grip on a life that has gone stale. Now, Ross has Lynne Meadow directing Of Good Stock at Manhattan Theatre Club. In it she follows the travails of three sisters over the course of a reunion weekend -- and in doing so invites hardly unwelcome comparisons to works by Anton Chekhov and, more recently, Wendy Wasserstein and Beth Henley. You could throw Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters into the mix as well.
Because it's the 40th birthday for Jess (Jennifer Mudge), she and doting husband Fred (Kelly Aucoin) have invited her siblings Celia (Heather Lind) and Amy (Alicia Silverstone) to the summer house in which all three spent much growing-up time but which their late and distant novelist father, Mick Stockton, left in Jess's care. To add to the weekend guest roster Amy brings Josh (Greg Keller), whom she's planning to marry only a short while after she's had her two cats married, and Celia brings four-month-new boyfriend Hunter (Nate Miller).
Uncertain how the six of them will get along -- and with something even more stressful on her mind -- Jess is not relaxed about the impending visits. Fred, thinking to put her at ease, says, "It's just three days." Almost needless to note, the remark, uttered early on, is not simply a tip-off that much will happen in the impending 72 hours. It's also a billboard announcing anything that can go wrong will go wrong.
There's no call to describe each of the near-calamitous events that trip over the heels of one another, but it's surely all right to mention that Jess's concerns run to an uncertain health condition hinted at early and eventually revealed; that Celia and Amy have a long-standing dislike and distrust of each other that possesses them and aggravates others; that Celia and Missoula-born-and-bred Hunter have an explosive secret they're taking their time about sharing; that sensitive and volatile Amy and Josh may have sent out the wedding invitations but aren't on the firmest footing as a couple; and that Jess and Fred -- for all their compatibility -- are wrestling with something unspoken that demands to be aired.
It's also not unfair to report that with all the potential conflicts and confrontations Ross sets up, she shies away from none of the darker manifestations of each. That's as the three couples move propulsively through Santo Loquasto's revolving version of a summer home with large living room-kitchen combo, out-door patio and beachfront land. The getaway locale is enhanced by Peter Kaczorowski's lighting and the lush David Van Tieghem's music covering the many scene changes.
It may be that Fred's "It's just three days" remark, which hasn't his hoped for affect on Jess, does more of a disservice than Ross realizes. It tips the secrets-and-lies elements more than she'd like. A savvy audience member exposed to this sort of dysfunctional-family affair regularly may guess what's up with the characters before they do and/or before they confide their particularly discombobulating situations to one another.
Incidentally, in Ross's Nice Girl, she introduces a coincidence that strains patrons' credulity, but in neither play doe she allow the kinds of wrinkles that throw the undertakings way off kilter. Ross is too good at creating characters and entanglements that are recognizably human, recognizably afflicted with genuine troubles and with humorous and believable foibles.
In the course of arranging all this, Ross comes up with any number of engaging conversations. A discussion of contemporary rallying around artisanal products is especially laugh getting.
Moreover, Ross's people are the kind about whom viewers instantly care. For one instance, the alienatingly whiny Amy ultimately comes to discuss her sisters in an extremely touching tirade. For another, just when it seems Ross isn't going to get down to the nitty-gritty of the Jess-Fred bind, she does -- and beautifully. And these aren't the only such passages. They abound.
Furthermore, the cast maximizes the play's power, as directed by Meadow in one of her best pieces of work. To say what she produces is of first-rate ensemble quality could imply that the actors subordinate themselves to the group effort. What qualifies as truly noticeable troupe excellence is something else, of course. That occurs when each member is performing at his or her empathetic best in relation to everyone else. That's what's going on here.
The result is that with her two spring-summer entries, Ross confirms she's well past the promising stage and is now someone worth watching very closely.
Happy Days, which Samuel Beckett began writing in 1960 consciously or unconsciously as a companion piece to Waiting for Godot, is receiving a truly fine production at The Flea. The Theater @ Boston Court is the sponsor, Andrei Belgrader the director, Brooke Adams the Winnie and Tony Shalhoub the Willie.
Once again, a harsh bell awakens Winnie. who's buried waist high (waste high?) in a mound of barren earth. (Not even a leafless tree adorns the landscape, as one does in Waiting for Godot.) Immediately alert and thrilled at discovering another glorious day, Winnie goes about her morning ablutions and then continues to indulge in daily minutiae and negligible chatter. Occasionally, she addresses husband Willie, who inhabits a hole not far from hers, but he's only glimpsed partially in the first of the relatively short acts.
In the second act, when Winnie is immersed up to the chin, Willie finally gets to be seen head to foot. (Takeshi Kata is the mound builder.) The final image of Winnie and Willie taking each other in at last is something startling to behold, but so is just about everything that precedes it.
Beckett's metaphor is potent. A woman is being literally buried alive in the ordinariness of existence. But Happy Days is also an examination of marriage in a disillusioned post-World War II atmosphere, just as in its way Waiting for Godot is an up-close-and-personal look at friendship.
As Winnie, Adams proves to be a woman of myriad faces, all of them absolutely and recognizably natural. As Winnie goes about her day, Adams's range of emotions is extraordinary. As for Shalhoub, he makes everything he can of the subordinated Willie, for whom Belgrader has found more to do than is usually the case. Who wouldn't? This is Tony Shalhoub.