Orange Flower Water
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 3, 2005
Cathy and David are married. They have three kids. He's a pharmacist, she's a teacher. She thinks everything is fine.
Beth and Brad are married. He runs a video store, she's a stay-at-home mother. He's a bit of jerk; knows it. He thinks everything is fine.
Beth and David are in love.
That's the setup of Craig Wright's intense, intimate new play Orange Flower Water. What happens when this happens? Is there a way that two marriages won't be destroyed, two sets of children won't get uprooted, four adults won't forever feel recrimination and anger and pain and, in at least two cases, extreme guilt? Wright pokes and prods, yet finds no real surprises; he doesn't judge, which I kind of wanted him to. This is an amazing piece of theatre that sticks to you long after it's over. We're a culture of people who crave happiness, self-fulfillment, self-actualization. How do we reconcile that with our instincts for security, sanctity, compassion?
Orange Flower Water tracks Beth and David's affair from its first physical manifestation in a motel room—three years (!) after they began their flirtation—to its blossoming in the person of Lily, the child they have together after they're married; the child they say they want to create even that first time they make love. But we don't really see the progress of their relationship in between those two endpoints here; instead, we see the wreckage of the other relationships along the way. In the play's most shattering scene, Brad lashes out at Beth and then crumbles; a piece of him seems completely destroyed by this un-looked-for upheaval. And in the play's most jolting scene—one that will help get it talked about, I think—Cathy punishes David in a scary, dangerous way by seducing him the night before he will tell their kids that he's leaving their mom. (This scene, graphic without being remotely erotic, includes nudity and simulated sex. It feels at once gratuitous, sensational, nervily raw, and—in the close quarters of this theatre—deeply distracting.)
Wright intersperses among these pairings a solo moment for each of the four characters, the most successful of which is Brad's—because he's the least introspective of these people, he paradoxically reveals the most about himself when he engages in direct address.
Wright conveys the destructiveness of Beth and David's actions with blunt authenticity. A scene between Cathy and Beth at the schoolyard lets us know that adjustments have been made and life is proceeding with a normalcy that many contemporary couples will recognize with, perhaps, a tinge of regret. Two more scenes showing us Beth and David together feel a bit like an apologia—but as I told you, Wright isn't taking sides here, he's painting the whole picture on a canvas that now contains three families where once there were just two. It's a complicated picture, loaded with truth.
Edge Theater Company has provided a physical production that is sophisticated and elegant: a wall of light-colored wood surrounds the playing area and audience (who are seated on three sides of the stage); a single bed—representing many different beds—is the only other major scenic element in David Korins's design. Eric Shim's sound and Ben Stanton's lighting contribute mightily to mood and tone. Carolyn Cantor's direction is arresting without calling attention to itself.
The performances are uneven. Paul Sparks is explosive and heartbreaking in a brilliant turn as Brad; Pamela J. Gray is commanding yet vulnerable as Beth. But Jason Butler Harnar registers as nearly a cipher as David, while Arija Bareikis barely registers at all as Cathy: there's a long moment when she's sitting silently on the edge of the bed and I had no idea what was going through her head, though I knew I should. To be fair, I should note that the play, which is pitched a little too obviously first this way and then that by Wright, gives the better opportunities to Sparks and Gray.
Orange Flower Water is imperfect but it's gripping; the ground it treads is so commonplace and essential nowadays that it can't help but resonate—who doesn't know first- or second-hand a story like Beth and David's? Applause, lots of it, to the playwright and his collaborators here at Edge Theater for dealing so nakedly with such a tough and very personal area of life.