nytheatre.com review by Debbie Hoodiman
March 12, 2005
Inky, written by Rinne Groff, is a play about a couple, Barbara and Greg, who hire (just for food and a couch to sleep on, without pay) an immigrant nanny, Inky, to take care of their newborn baby boy. As Inky becomes more comfortable with the family and starts to acclimate, each family member becomes attached to her, and their lives come apart. Greg, a workaholic and a bit of a wimp, feels constantly driven to work more hours to earn more money to please his greedy wife. Inky starts to take over his roles in the family as she becomes his wife’s confidante and takes his older daughter Allison to and from school (which he used to do). Barbara, a money-hungry, domineering, disinterested mother of two, constantly insults her husband and pushes him to work for a bigger house and a promotion, all to earn her ever-unreachable love. Inky points out Barbara’s disinterest in her children and criticism of her husband and inspires Barbara to listen more closely to what goes on around her and to question whether privilege keeps her from experiencing anything “real.”
The couple’s daughter, Allison, never appears on stage until the end, but the other three characters talk about her. As Inky starts to teach Allison some boxing moves, Greg disapproves and orders her to stop. Inky also cooks up a scheme involving Girl Scout cookies and shows Allison how to make money.
Inky herself, a youthful, savvy girl who speaks in broken English and comes from a place she describes as near a big lake, is obsessed with Muhammad Ali. At the top of the show and between certain scenes, Inky recites Ali’s monologues and punches the air like a boxer. In these monologues, Jessi Campbell (as Inky) is extremely charming and funny; the monologues themselves were my favorite part of the piece. Campbell has made physical choices with her acting so that, in all scenes, she is almost always on the move, and these choices fit well with her footwork when she imitates Ali.
Overall, though, the play feels fragmented and messy. Part of the problem is that the “wise immigrant” formula (difficult to do well because it’s so cliche) annoyed me. And part of the problem is that there are too many themes that aren’t tied together tightly enough: The father’s descent into illegal activity because of his drive; the mother’s desire for a more “legitimate” life; the immigrant’s desire to be a success, modeled after the great American fighter; the parents’ concern about their daughter who may be too afraid of things. This is all too much. The end of the play seems to hinge on the fact that Allison has evolved to the point that she is no longer afraid to go swimming, but since Groff does not put Allison on stage until the final scene, and since there are so many other things going on, the moment doesn’t have its intended impact.
If I take a hint from the center page of the program, which features, among other quotes, “When there are no values, money counts,” by sociologist E. Digby Baltzell, it appears that Groff may intend for the overriding theme to be how a family’s obsession with money has made them lose touch with who they are. If this is the case, Inky, herself obsessed with money, may serve to point out to the family, through her imitation of their values, how money has made them dysfunctional. Though that is certainly part of the play, there are so many other things going on that this point just doesn't come across clearly.
In contrast to the plot problems, some of the technical aspects of the play are superb. The lighting designer, Sarah Sidman, successfully creates the illusion of specific times of day as sunlight shone through a stage right window with vertical blinds: there’s the perfect 5:00 a.m.; there’s the perfect noon. The sound, designed by Robert Kaplowitz, is fun, including one clip of a comedian talking about Muhammad Ali (forgive me if this is a well-known clip I should recognize but don’t). And Robert Brill's set, a cleanly painted, sterile, upscale apartment, complete with an accurate “period piece” wall decoration, is a perfect reflection of the couple’s inner workings.