A very simplified reading of Freudian psychoanalytic theory holds that individual happiness is possible only when one finds satisfaction in both the realms of work and love. In Intimate Apparel, Lynn Nottage's drama, African American seamstress Esther finds satisfaction, and makes ends meet, with the products of her Age of Industry labor. Her heart, on the other hand, is so unfed that she takes an unwise, life-altering risk. The story is smart, well written, and resonant. Would that this production managed to find the script's potentially explosive emotional currents, instead of offering an oddly polite and overly restrained tone.
Esther (Sharon Washington) has turned 35 when the action begins. She's fashioned a career out of making ladies' undergarments for society wives, but the sting of loneliness is always near. One day a letter arrives from a worker on the Panama Canal, a fellow with the wholesome-sounding name of George Armstrong (his pedigree also enhanced by secondhand connections to the church of her youth), and Esther begins to entertain fantasies of spending her life with this guy--who from his letters comes off as the ostensible spirit of rectitude and poetic virtue.
George (Sterling K. Brown) reads aloud from his letters (their actual authorship, as well as Esther's in return, later becomes a crucial matter) on a perch high above Scott Bradley's modular and neatly versatile set. It's an apt device, for beneath George's fine rhetoric about the sights he's seen and the sort of life he wants to live is a conflicted and deeply ambiguous character. By the time he arrives in New York for an insta-marriage to Esther at the end of Act 1, the good times are pretty much already finished.
The proverbial gun on the table in this play is a small fortune that Esther has saved up from 18 years of toil and sewed into the fabric of the quilt that covers her bed (okay, the symbolism is a little thick, but by this time Washington's determined and quietly steely take on the character has us buying in). George, frustrated, out of work, and by now carrying on an affair with Esther's best friend (Cassandra F. Freeman, who brings a nice tone of earthiness to her portrayal of an ivory-tinkling prostitute), learns of the money, and the course of events is officially unstoppable.
Which makes some of the choices that follow a bit puzzling. Washington plays Esther with such reserved power that one expects to see stores of emotion unleashed once she is terribly wronged. Brown, who invests George with a yearning beneath his increasingly callous behavior, seems ready to break out in violence (psychic or otherwise) under the weight of his internal contradictions. Neither really happens. It's usually a bad sign when audiences latch onto secondary characters, and they did at the performance I saw--O'Connor's textured pragmatism is magnetic, and Ron Menzel's textile merchant provides much of the evening's warmth. This production promises nothing less than to tell the story of anonymous and long-forgotten lives, but the heartbreaking enormity of Esther's loss, as well as the depths of George's perfidy, are barely felt.
The women depicted in Trista Baldwin's new play are younger and more privileged than Esther, but they're similarly preoccupied with what Leonard Cohen called "the winds of change and the weeds of sex." Patty Red Pants refocuses the Little Red Riding Hood myth by giving us two teenaged girls in the bloom of sexual discovery and all of the tangled vines that follow.
Events unfold in circles and tangents, with some scenes snapping back and forth in time without supplying obvious cues that they are doing so. It could be a mess, really, in the wrong hands, but Ariel Dumas and Emily Gunyou mesh together quite well and propel the idea train forward with the dirty innocence and potty-mouthed sense of sporadic joy and sexy openness the work requires. The Big Bad Wolf, licking his chops and drooling in the woods, desires more than a meal, and the dialogue tosses about the full uncensored range of female reactions to lust--both their own and that of those who would desire to have them. It explodes the fairy tale to smithereens, but it was never such an innocent story to begin with, was it?