The Pillow Book
nytheatre.com review by Nathaniel Kressen
August 4, 2011
At times confusing but nonetheless compelling, Anna Moench’s The Pillow Book explores human interaction through the fragmented lens of lives past, lives imagined, and lives entrenched in the everyday. A single, abstract set entraps three actors as they portray an array of characters, all of whom are named John, Deb, or Deborah. Their shifting relationships to one another are only intermittently clear, yet those do not seem to be the focus of The Pillow Book. Rather, Moench seeks to explore the essence of what it means for one person to deal with another—the nuances, the assumptions, the hidden agendas—and discover if true communication can ever take place. While this subject is certainly a valid one, the production’s refusal to distinguish between the play’s characters and storylines proves distracting, and takes away from the overall impact on the audience.
The strongest element in Moench's writing is her ability to craft conventions that serve the play at large. Here, the central couple lists answers to questions of their own making, designed to reveal to one another (and the audience) their inner thought patterns. For example, the play opens with Deb stating, "Kill somebody. Eat live insects. Fight a bear. Take cooking lessons. Knit clothes for my pet. Dress my pet. Leave." The question, which we never hear aloud, is "Things I don't want to do." Similar interludes occur throughout the play, and recall the midnight conversations of an early romance, or the silly musings of a dedicated long-term couple attempting to plot out their future together.
With an equally insightful touch, Moench dramatizes miscommunication in all stages, from inception to fallout. In one scene, Deb relays a story of a pregnant co-worker that disgusted her. John then says he wants kids. Deb refuses. They argue for a moment before identifying the true depth of their disagreement: each has held firm opinions that were never communicated outright to one another, but nonetheless assumed to be mutual. What ensues over the coming days/weeks/months are a series of lesser miscommunications cued by their initial inability to connect.
Other aspects of the play could benefit from further development. There is a sense of safety that pervades throughout, as if each disagreement will invariably result in reunion. It proves difficult to invest emotionally in any of the characters for that reason, as nothing substantial feels at risk. Also, because director David F. Chapman makes no effort to distinguish storylines from one another, an extraordinary toll is exacted on the audience simply to follow along. The result is that by play's end, the evening feels more like a stagnant exploration of ideas than a driving dramatic piece.
Actors Eric Bryant, Julie Fitzpatrick, and Vanessa Wasche perform capably, and one wishes they had more emotional weight to carry, as their theatrical chops looks solid.
Maruti Evans's dream-like set is a hollow white box encompassing an in-the-round stage, allowing scenes to alternate between the raised ledges of the perimeter and the lower stage-floor in center. The only props are pillows, which are used to represent everything from car doors to placard signs. The environment seems to say that life merely boils down to impression and approximation, which suits the play's style perfectly. The only distraction is its pristine white floor. Almost immediately it gets scuffed and stained, and while the argument could certainly be made that these blemishes reflect a corruption of the characters' outlook, that approach isn't incorporated into the storyline thoroughly enough to support this conclusion. Instead, the markings only serve to detract from the set's ethereal quality.
The Pillow Book is the work of a young playwright tackling large questions in an innovative way. While this production certainly lacks clarity at times, it also provides an early look at a potentially powerful new voice. It plays through August 20, and is well worth the ticket price.