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08/25/2014 11:27 pm ET | Updated Oct 26, 2014

First Nighter: Naomi Wallace's And I and Silence and Not Much

If you tend to think of playwright Naomi Wallace as compulsively pretentious--I do--be advised that And I and Silence, the title of her recent work, now at The Pershing Square Signature Center, won't go a long way toward disabusing you of the notion. It's a quote from Emily Dickinson's poem "I Felt a Funeral in My Brain," but even so, separated from its source to float alone doesn't take the edge off its highfalutin ring here.

Then the play gets underway and further substantiates Wallace's So-Important proclivities. In it Dee (Samantha Soule), who's white, and Jamie (Rachel Nicks), who's black, inhabit a squalid one-room apartment as they go about attempting to make a life for themselves in 1959, while alternately young Dee (Emily Skeggs) and young Jamie (Trae Harris) carry on clandestine meetings in Jamie's cell while each are serving nine-year sentences, beginning in 1950.

(Rachel Hauck designed the gloomy set that, with the single bed frequently shifted 90 degrees, serves as both locales.)

Since Wallace is writing about friendship between women, it may be that women will be more inclined to appreciate--I almost said "fall for"--the play. I tried to but kept getting put off by the frequently stylized language as well as by Caitlin McLeod's stylized direction. Throughout, I wondered whether the stylization was Wallace's intention or whether it was imposed by McLeod.

What Jamie and Dee discuss as they stalk each other through the two years they know each other before Dee is transferred elsewhere as a result of bad behavior (once she urinated in a juice cup that a guard drank) is how they'll live together after they complete their sentences. They plan to become maids. To that end, Jamie rehearses Dee in specifics such as never bending while dusting. Dee must, Jamie demonstrates, curtsy.

When liberated--if their 1959 prison without bars can be called liberation--they go about finding the jobs they dreamed of jointly, only to lose one position after another. They also imagine landing husbands, but that, too, comes to naught. Russell, the man whom Jamie likes, turns out to be married. His friend Charles apparently isn't what's hoped for when he, Dee, Jamie and Russell double date.

So what Wallace presents is a strikingly negative view of Jamie and Dee's shared existence. Growing up to become criminals, they learn that nothing improves once they're free. Indeed, the bright future they pictured becomes the exact opposite.

The trouble with Wallace's ironic dramaturgy, however, is that as playwright she's doggedly nihilistic at the same time as stinting on proof that life is as unrelievedly grim as she shows it. She tells the audience that Jamie and Dee lose their jobs until they reach the point where leaving the apartment is too much for either of them to face. But because this is a two-hander, she never allows observers to see why they can't retain their positions. She talks about Russell and Charles, but they're never seen. Dee and Jamie are viewed (surely with deliberation) in a vacuum, and that works against their being accepted as genuine oppressed.

Making certain that the sun never shines on either young woman, Wallace assures herself that she can lead to as depressing a denouement as can be imagined. The drawback is that too many contrivances precede the final scene. When it arrives, it's superficially shocking but hardly credible.

I can't speak for other spectators as they left the auditorium, but I can say I couldn't figure out what the purpose of this work about purposelessness is, even if Soule, Nicks, Harris and Skeggs perform with admirable conviction in their roles as convicts and then ex-convicts.

Actually, from time to time Wallace attempts to lighten the atmosphere. Occasionally, the characters speak in rhymed couplets to suggest that they've bonded over games they like. Jamie reports that in describing Charles, Russell says his friend has a good neck, and Dee's reply gets a laugh. Other jabs at poetry (not necessarily rhymed) are strained. For instance, one comment has it that in autumn oak leaves drop later than other species because oak trees "won't let 'em go."

More than once, Jamie and Dee play out sado-masochistic scenes with each other, sometimes slapping thighs and calves with sticks, sometimes making each other grovel. It's these turns that may have ticket buyers who recently attended Jean Genet's The Maids at the Lincoln Center Festival think they're watching a deliberate variation on that rouser. The synchronicity could add up to lending maid status a bad odor.

Possible spoiler alert: In another late development and after a few instances of both Dee and Jamie referring to several degrading episodes with men, the question of lesbian desire arises. Even a brief swing in that direction takes place. Again, the semi-revelation impresses as just another contrivance to unsettle patrons.

For the record: In the Romulus Linney space, the audience is seated on either side of the stage. It's too bad there isn't more here of real substance--rather than trumped-up histrionics--to view from whatever angle.

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