“For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would, I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.” That’s Romans, chapter 7, verses 18 and 19, King James Version. As sources for titles go, it’s a pretty weighty one. One could reasonably suppose that a play called No Good Things Dwell in the Flesh might have a kind of Flannery O’Connor menace about it — an interest in hearts of darkness and touches of evil. But while there is a faint whiff of the sinister around the edges of Christina Masciotti’s new play, it doesn’t intensify into anything substantial enough to resemble a real shadow. Both playwright and director (Rory McGregor) are attempting to add spooky aura—and, thereby, thematic heft—to this story about an aging Russian immigrant tailor considering what will become of her shop when she’s gone. The play, however, asserts its own straightforwardness inside its muddled gothic trappings: It’s not really a full-fledged metaphysical drama, but it’s a decent character study.
Our no-nonsense heroine is Agata (Kellie Overbey), who runs a tailor shop in Queens. Born in the Soviet Union (“When Russia broken, I lost citizenship,” she says bluntly, as she says everything), she found herself in Latvia and then, years later, in alterations at Bloomingdale’s, and now, after much struggle, behind her own counter in Astoria. She’s a master of her craft, but appreciation for her kind of painstakingly won expertise is fading. “Everybody knows dying profession,” she huffs to her sweet-natured assistant, Janice (Carmen Zilles). “It’s dying because it’s hard way to learn and you have to be creative. People doesn’t wanna learn…. Now click on internet, make a lot of money. With this you can’t just click, you have to work a hundred years.”
Agata’s terse, unsentimental rhythms come from Masciotti’s own Russian tailor in Astoria. After a long time as a customer, the playwright has said, “I approached her about wanting to write a play based on her life. Her immediate response was, ‘I always knew this would happen.’ She pulled up a stool, and I spent six months by her side.” A playwright’s dream! And Masciotti has the ear for it. As a woman with piles of hard-earned experience, and as an immigrant and a service worker who has frequently been looked right through, Agata has plenty to say, and Masciotti skillfully renders her distinctive way of saying it. I sometimes found myself thinking of Alex, the criminally charming translator who narrates Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated. The novel’s vitality comes from Alex’s voice, with its buoyancy and confidence, its slightly jangly English and wonky figures of speech. Agata would no doubt class Alex as she does “taller men”—“more stupid. Certain amount proud of themself. For nothing.”—but her own particular idiom is likewise the bedrock and the delight of her author’s story. It’s easy to understand why Masciotti was eager to spend six months listening.
If a play is for the most part powered by a single and singular voice, then it needs an actor who can provide that engine — and Overbey can. She flows through Agata’s outpourings of opinion and pronouncement at speed (which is necessary to give them their bite and their humor), and she furrows her brow and hunches her shoulders just the right amount for a woman who’s usually bent over a sewing machine. Costume designer Johanna Pan’s look for her—cheap gray polyester slacks, a turtleneck, an old purple fleece vest, sensible shoes—also feels right on: the paradox of a craftsperson who has dedicated her life to the beauty inherent in the most delicate stitch and the most perfect pleat, and also spends less than five minutes dressing herself each day in an outfit from Marshalls.
No Good Things catches Agata at a contemplative moment. She senses the end of her career looming, and she’d like to pass on her shop to Janice, in whom she sees talent and potential. But poor Janice isn’t just talented — she’s also 30 and single, nervous about those things, and dangerously desperate for affection. As all of that starts to get in the way, and as an unstable ex-lover of Agata’s named Vlad (T. Ryder Smith) wanders back into her life to cause havoc, the tailor’s dreams of leaving a legacy start to slip away.
So if she’s so vivid, why does the play sink? The problem is mostly an inflated and aesthetically fuzzy sense of its own seriousness. McGregor and his lighting and sound designers, Stacey Derosier and Brian Hickey, intersperse the scenes in the tailor shop with interludes that aspire to strangeness but end up more woo-woo: The space goes purple and shadowy, sliced through by the glow of an LED tube mounted on one wall, murky tones of not-quite-music hanging in the air. Sometimes this atmosphere even bleeds into the start of scenes — a gesture that feels more muddy than potent. As the play advances, Vlad’s appearances become increasingly unhinged, and Agata finds herself more and more trapped in the moody-blue liminal moments. During one, as she speaks to a spectral customer (Jeffrey Brabant and Megan Lomax play various visitors to the shop), she even pauses to gaze balefully out at us and intone: “It’s hard, it takes so long time. Time, time, and time and time. I don’t have.”
Overbey—whose performance is usually sharp—is saddled with the task of putting a pregnant pause between each utterance of the word “time.” Without venturing too far into spoilerland, it seems fair to point out that the play prefaces itself with the punny but super-serious tagline: “An aging Russian tailor must confront the one thing she can’t alter — her own mortality.” Sometimes, weighty implication can feel more heavy-handed than just stating the thing straight out. This is the side effect writing teachers don’t mention when they preach “show, don’t tell.”
From tagline on down, McGregor and Masciotti seem committed to cranking up the existential heft of their tale. (And then there’s that title: Really? No good things? I mean, we’re not in a Cormac McCarthy novel here.) Crucially, this added solemnity doesn’t actually raise the stakes. Why does Agata need to be facing the end of her life for us to care about her? I don’t know if it makes me heartless, but none of the play’s dancing with death upset me as much as Agata’s simple confession to Janice: “The rent going up next year and it was extra much before that…. In three month my lease is up, I have to decide what to do with this place.”
The sad incompatibility of Agata’s and Janice’s individual yearnings is the real substance of No Good Things. And when the play floats, it’s in large part due to the strengths of its two leads. Zilles and Overbey play generously with each other, and Zilles brings a poignant, very believably millennial combination of bighearted hopefulness and crushing anxiety to Janice. For a long time, she seems to be, as Agata notes wryly, “No bad words. Everything pinky for you. Pinky beautiful.” Then Janice has a panic attack, and Agata’s talking her down is one of the high points of the play. It brings Masciotti back to her happy place—the detailed observation of character—and it is at once deeply caring and extremely Russian: “Here,” she throws a shirt at Janice. “Work so you can breathe.”
No Good Things Dwell in the Flesh is at A.R.T. through September 23.