The Tangled Skirt
nytheatre.com review by Nita Congress
December 3, 2010
The premise is promising: a seedy bus station, a painfully self-aware small-town weaver of tales, a delectably leggy, ice-cold and diamond-hard woman, a just-committed murder and robbery, and ninety minutes until the last bus pulls out.
A noir-ish feel animates the taut, stark questions that comprise the plot—Did he? Did she? Will they? Would she? Could they? Double Indemnity, Body Heat, Bogie, Bacall, Stanwyck, and many more of the familiar tropes of film noir are summoned up by the play's literate dialogue, the naturalistic yet ambiguous set—is this the present, or the forties?—and the tensions between and within the two characters.
There is much in The Tangled Skirt that transports us to the murky world of old Ida Lupino movies—which were lit, my father, an aficionado of old Warner Brothers pictures, used to say, by a single two-watt light bulb. Indeed, many elements capture a very vivid time and place: the opening blackout, when only the last four letters are illuminated on the vending machine sign (CANDIES), the Joan Crawford-evoking eyebrows and black pencil skirt of the slinky femme fatale, the worn benches on the floor, industrial clock on the wall, and forlorn pay phone. The designers—Jessica Parks (scenic design), Jill Nagle (lighting), and Patricia E. Doherty (costumes)—have focused much thoughtful and loving detail toward getting the tone exactly right.
But some weaknesses prevent a totally immersive experience. The first of these is the play itself. Despite Steve Braunstein's generally excellent dialogue that could be Wilder and Chandler outtakes (some examples: "I'll miss your cold on hot summer nights," "Happy endings are for suckers," "So many good stories come from lousy marriages") and some wonderfully paradoxical, eyebrow-raising lines ("You're the only stranger I know," "I'm not anybody else anymore"), the story ultimately isn't strong enough to rely on only two characters. It's too lean and spare. Much of the first act has a repetitive and somewhat padded feel, since not too much can be revealed yet, leading to rather circular conversations. And while Vince Nappo is believable as protagonist Bailey Bryce, Carmit Levite's exotic accent (South African and Israeli flavored) is distracting for the Canadian Rhonda Claire. Evan Bergman's direction is crisp and natural, making you forget that there are only so many places to move and things to do in a bus depot; however, the lack of action and revelation in the first act is tough to get around.
However, the play hits its stride in a relatively satisfactory second act of accusations, insinuations, and recriminations, and an ending that encapsulates an evening's perambulation around the noir dilemma of good and evil in ordinary people.
Character Assassins, the play preceding The Tangled Skirt in New Jersey Repertory Company's current season, wittily poked meta-fun at the difficulties of staging a successful two-person play. The Tangled Skirt illustrates several of the pitfalls, but ultimately provides a pleasantly evocative and well-designed theatre experience.