Lily of the Conservative Ladies
nytheatre.com review by Heather J. Violanti
February 3, 2011
Mad Men meets The Twilight Zone meets film noir in Lily of the Conservative Ladies, a "lost" play from 1963 now brought to light by the Glass Beads Theatre Ensemble. This unusual drama by Michael Locascio plays with the conventions of 1950s realism and the “whodunit” and takes a surreal journey into the underbelly of the American dream. In all, the production is a fascinating, if uneven, excavation of a forgotten play.
Locascio’s structure leaps from style to style, shifting from drama to comedy in an instant. The play begins as a slice of 1950s living room realism. Two women, Miriam and Lily, meet in Lily’s living room to discuss her upcoming birthday plans. Then, things go all Salvador Dalí for a few minutes. In three short, surreal scenes, Lily giggles and hiccups at her door buzzer while a frustrated florist delivery boy asks to come in. Then, a strobe flashes, a woman screams, and suddenly we’re in a detective drama, with a shrouded corpse on the floor.
It’s disorienting, but deliberately so. The discordant mix of styles is the play’s great strength…and also its weakness. The abrupt, unpredictable turns feel as much awkward as inspired, particularly given the oddly slow scene shifts in this production. As written, the short, surreal moments are so fleeting that they feel more like afterthoughts than a clear stylistic choice. And the playwright’s final surprise twist undercuts his anti-Establishment message.
Locascio experiments not only in form but in content. Ahead of its time, the play tackles verboten topics for its era—drugs, mental illness, pre-marital sex, homosexuality, and sexism. Yet its curious reticence on details remains clearly rooted in its time.
Director Mari Gorman faithfully brings Locascio’s forgotten script to life with her hard-working acting ensemble. The pace is perhaps too cautious, and the stylistic shifts feel not so much disorienting as odd, yet Gorman ably evokes a sense of the era. Everyone respects the text—but the dark, dangerous subtext is only fitfully explored. Still, there are effective moments: Lily and Jimmy’s Kerouac-esque love scene (played with commitment by Suzi Lindner and Devon Talbott), Miriam’s droll instructions about a woman’s proper behavior (delivered with dry comic timing by Danna Call), the bemused anxiety of Lily’s friend (played with comic nervous energy by Stuti Kejriwal), and the tough-talking professional ennui of the police squad (gleefully done by Christopher Estrada, Roy Havrilack, and Ondina Frate).
Keep in mind, Glass Beads is a newly formed ensemble, and they have much room to grow. In selecting Lily of the Conservative Ladies, they show adventurous taste. It will be interesting to see how their work progresses in the future.