nytheatre.com review by Danny Bowes
July 15, 2008
In her first full-length play, Elisa Abatsis uses the daguerreotype (the early 19th century photographic process) as a metaphor for the human being: an image of brilliance and clarity, each one unique and impossible to duplicate. Two popular subjects of the daguerreotype, bereavement photos and erotica, serve as the subject matter here, as we see four artists, each dealing with emotional pain derived from love gone wrong.
The play's prologue sees Gemma, a promising artist in her senior year of high school, choosing to run off to New York with her art teacher (with whom she's sleeping) rather than accept any number of college scholarships. We then jump to five years later, to a small town in Ohio where Henry, who photographs recently deceased babies as a means of closure for the grieving parents, is drinking away his past and dealing with his wisecracking assistant Chase, who uses Henry's darkroom for a sideline in porn, though little is ever made of this.
The plot thickens when Gemma and her mother Darcy, an actress with substance abuse problems, arrive at Henry's door—Darcy being the very past that Henry is trying to drink away, and Chase having been a high school classmate of Gemma's with a very awkwardly expressed crush on her. And, periodically, a ghost appears.
In the end, although the play's conclusion provides the same closure and quiet satisfaction that Henry's photographs strive for, a great deal is left unresolved and/or confusing. While each character daguerreotype is well-crafted in and of itself and individually interesting, their relationships with each other are occasionally awkward. Darcy and Gemma never quite seem credible as mother and daughter, nor do Darcy and Henry seem as though they ever would have been lovers. Perhaps in a play longer than 90 minutes, there would have been more room to develop some of these relationships.
There is also a strange sequence where a pregnant woman named Cece, whose baby is going to be born with a severe and inevitably fatal defect, arrives in the office to order photos, and we see Chase, of the gallows humor and slacker work ethic, transform into a genuinely empathetic listener as Cece describes her plight, only to be dismissed by the inexplicably present Darcy, whom Cece later describes as "getting it" although she doesn't seem to do anything but talk about herself.
For all its rough edges, Daguerreotypes does have plenty to recommend it. Director Karen Raphaeli keeps the pace brisk and gets good performances from her actors, especially Jared Morgenstern's caffeinated turn as Chase, which does a great deal toward cushioning the morbidity inherent in a play about, in part, a guy who photographs dead babies for a living. Ultimately, the greatest success of a play so centered around such a dark idea is that it feels more like a play about people who live rather than people who no longer do.