theater review

Intimate Apparel and Shhhh Peek Into the Unmentionables

Ricky Ian Gordon and Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel at Lincoln Center. Photo: T Charles Erickson

Pity the Metropolitan Opera. Those 3,800 seats, the wedding-cake balconies, the starburst chandeliers — what a burden it all is. Chamber opera won’t breathe there, and the room’s vastness overwhelms anything fine-grained, personal, alexandrine, careful. In the recent Eurydice, for instance, Matthew Aucoin’s opera ends when Orpheus steps on a piece of paper. But how many people actually saw him do it? Judging by the post-show conversations in my row, not enough.

So it’s a big deal that the Met has figured out how to get small. Teaming up with Lincoln Center Theater for the first time, it’s co-producing the premiere of Ricky Ian Gordon and Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel in the (comparatively teensy) 299-seat Mitzi Newhouse Theater next door. “Intimate” is right there in the title, so to get things as focused as possible, director Bartlett Sher puts the show on the Mitzi’s thrust stage: The audience wraps three-quarters of the way around the small circular platform, looking down like observers in an operating theater. It’s a Sher show, so the stage rotates (a lot) and actors frantically wheel set pieces in and out. Yet despite this busy-bee fussiness, Intimate Apparel lets us come close to its characters, close enough to see the details — the loose button, the hesitant touch — that turn and shape the story.

Nottage’s libretto stays faithful to her original 2003 play, in which the lonely seamstress Esther (Kearstin Piper Brown) sews corsets in 1905 New York. Her parents were “born and died slaves,” but Esther’s skill carries her across class and race lines, catering to both the rich white Mrs. Van Buren (Naomi Louisa O’Connell) and the Tenderloin nightclub singer Mayme (Krysty Swann). Churchy, starchy Esther is a little prudish, but she finds friends everywhere: Her clients adore her; her landlady, Mrs. Dickson (the astonishing Adrienne Danrich), tries to matchmake for her. Despite her illiteracy, Esther strikes up a correspondence with a man in Panama named George (Justin Austin) — “I see past everything green to the horizon / and imagine you,” he writes, walking across the stage and her romantic imagination. Too late, after they have married, she realizes she has misread many things, including her friendship with the Jewish fabric merchant Mr. Marks (Arnold Livingston Geis), and her carefully assembled future comes apart.

Gordon’s music occasionally interpolates a little of Mayme’s ragtime stride, but for the most part, his modern, amelodic music sets Nottage’s language abstractly, emphasizing odd words in sentences, working against rather than with their meaning. In lieu of an orchestra, two pianists sit on high platforms against the back wall, so we lose some of Gordon’s characteristic sentiment and lushness — if you see his The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, playing right now in a New York City Opera production downtown, you’ll hear how much more beautiful his work sounds with symphonic orchestration. In Intimate Apparel, however, Gordon’s composition never lets itself get overwhelmed or overwhelming; it consciously holds back from intimacy. Gordon’s pianos maintain a constant, opaque emotional timbre whether Esther is in exaltation or fear, alone or in company.

Luckily, we are close enough that we can read the feelings moving across the performers’ faces — at the Mitzi, singers can afford to turn inward, confident we’ll see any subtle shift. Sher and the impressive company have built the performances at exactly the right size for the space. Austin is particularly good at shuttering his expression, slamming down hurricane hatches behind his eyes; Brown maintains a wonderful brusqueness and impatience, only slowing and sweetening Esther’s gestures when she reaches out to touch taffeta or wool or silk. Mrs. Dickson nearly takes the show away from the principal characters thanks to the way Danrich finds blue notes in her operatic phrasing, giving it a touch of fever in a sea of cooler sounds. But Austin, Brown, and Geis keep taking the show back, executing scenes of misunderstanding and longing, all of them acutely, even painfully, judged.

Did Intimate Apparel actually need to become an opera? Most of my pleasures in the show came from elements that are purely Nottage’s: Without Gordon’s music, it was already an exquisitely woven play, dense with threads about self-reliance, true seeing, and the necessity of touch. Some plays blossom when adapted (Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice, for example) but Intimate Apparel stays almost unaffected by this particular conversion. As a proof of concept for an operatic co-production model, though, it was an inspired choice. Who doesn’t want to see this play again? In any form? And the concept works. Finally, after a million years of sitting next to each other on the Lincoln Center plaza, the Met and the Mitzi Newhouse have linked up, and I want to see them do it again and again. The room serves opera beautifully, and whatever my opinion of these specific compositions, there’s inescapable excitement in being so close to world-class voices. Imagine a fighter jet roaring past you barely overhead. It feels dangerous just to be in its path.

A certain flicker of danger is also part of Clare Barron’s graphic Shhhh at the Atlantic Theater Company’s small Stage 2. It’s a play similarly interested in intimacy — and underwear and sex and misery. There’s less craft in Shhhh than in some of Barron’s other pieces; the mad Dionysian excess of Dance Nation or I’ll Never Love Again does appear, but it’s not so contagious here. As she’s done before, Barron uses a cabinet-of-curiosities approach to her own psyche — Look, she seems to say, here is my brain in a jar; isn’t that useful and weird? But this time, she loses her grip on the play’s humor, which makes the whole show turn inward. A Barron play without laughter is tough to take.

Barron often writes autobiographically (one show used her own childhood diary), which gives her increasingly troubling plays a hellish glow. She has begun directing and starring in them, too, in which case you watch her burn her own memories onstage. Here she plays the lead character, Shareen, and her detached half-smile sets the tone. Shareen talks about crossed sexual lines with her not-a-boyfriend Kyle (Greg Keller); Barron smiles. Shareen talks about degradation and explosive diarrhea with her sister, Witchy Witch (the superbly odd Constance Shulman); Barron smiles. Shareen overhears a conversation between two young women in a pizzeria (Nina Grollman and Annie Fang) chatting about the vile shit men have done to them; she picks at a pizza and smiles and smiles and smiles. Her sister is her wiser counterpart, and the play begins with a long, well-delivered ASMR episode in which Shulman murmurs about tea and lavender rubs in a honey-sticky voice. This might be a proposal for a way to indulge in non-guy-oriented self-care, or it might be Barron’s effort to make us all get a tingle — if that’s the kind of thing that works for you.

At first, the production, expertly designed by Arnulfo Maldonado and lit by Jen Schriever, gives off sex-dungeon vibes (there’s black plastic on the walls in the lobby), but once Witchy Witch goes on a date at Brooklyn’s Morbid Anatomy Museum, the scenes all start to look like … exhibits. Shareen’s bathroom seems a bit like a habitat display: A wax woman with viscera piled on her belly rests in a vitrine; the naturalistic pizzeria set rolls out like a little diorama. It’s clever, but Barron falters at staging action scenes inside this crowded space, particularly when Witchy Witch starts running around the tableaux, chasing Kyle to enact revenge on her sister’s behalf. The play desperately tries to turn comic but can’t, both because Barron doesn’t have the staging savvy for farce and because the show is already so far gone in inky-black despair.

In interviews, Barron has called theater part of her “kink of exhibitionism,” but for all that fringey transgression (e.g. she takes her DivaCup out onstage), she’s interested in some of the same things the much more mainstream Nottage is. Primarily, can you make an audience feel something without touching them? Nottage uses suggestion and kinetic sympathy: She shows us silk; we feel it against our cheek. Barron is trying to have a direct effect on our somatic responses either via ASMR or some late-play, stomach-turning stuff with body fluids. They’re fascinating as strategies, but they make strange (and counterproductive) bedfellows with Barron’s own rather cool observer’s energy. She winds up being like Gordon’s music in Intimate Apparel, a barrier to intimacy rather than a conduit of it. She’s brave, certainly, and she must feel this play deeply. But she seems to be receding from us as we watch her — beckoning us into her confidence but constantly turning away.

Intimate Apparel is at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre. Shhhh is at Atlantic Stage 2 through February 20.

Intimate Apparel and Shhhh Peek Into the Unmentionables