Sometimes at the theater, the women wrest it from the men — not quite that often, but sometimes. This is one of those weeks. I’m talking about The Other Thing, written by Emily Schwend and directed by Lucie Tiberghien, at Second Stage’s McGinn/Cazale Theatre Uptown, and Nice Girl, written by Melissa Ross and directed by Mimi O’Donnell, at Labyrinth’s current Bank Street Theatre home. It’s a rare combination of women helming works by women, but it’s just happened.
The Other Thing has another rare attribute in that it’s a ghost story for the stage. Or is it? Kim (Samantha Soule) is interviewing Carl (John Doman) on a subject about which she’s become obsessed: ghost-hunting. She listens to him describe his adventures for some time, also encountering his son Brady (James Kautz). She’s benignly taking notes and recording right up until something unexpected and intensely theatrical occurs that puts a jarring end to the first act.
At that point Kim — it could be Samantha Soule as herself — enters from the side, waving hello to someone or someones in the audience and says she’s going to tell a genuine ghost story. She starts talking about a little girl who unfortunately is witness to her mother’s murder. What she has to say begins to sound as if it might be connected to the first-act development.
When she’s completed the story, the next act begins with Kim in her bedroom where estranged boyfriend, Thomas (Bhavesh Patel), turns up to affect a reconciliation. (He still had keys.) Although Kim eventually acquiesces, she seems to be taken over by some unexplained force for a brief time. Then and suddenly, something like the incident that ended the first act takes place.
That’s when what has slowly been suggested about Kim — her own experiences with ghosts and how they’ve affected her — speeds up. As young Brady arrives to challenge Kim’s account of her visit to his dad and its abrupt conclusion, playwright Schwend reveals her preoccupation with ghosts more clearly. The hints — okay, they’re stronger than hints — are that the bodies piling up have more to do with Kim than she owns.
Ultimately, Schwend does let on what’s happening. Indeed, before she finishes her ghost story, she may have over-explained herself. What she has to confide about Kim and the relationship to her deceased(?) mother may be more than a savvy audience needs to learn, since they’ve already correctly figured it out.
What Schwend wants to establish about ghost proliferation — that more often than not their apparent appearance can be traced to emotional conflicts — is persuasive, and she has fun presenting her case on Kris Stone’s adaptable set. With the cast doing their utmost, under Tiberghien’s guidance to raise the play’s scare barometer, she keeps the play’s engine purring.
At the same time, and underlying her storyline, is the suggestion that unresolvable animosity between the sexes is rampant. As audience members exit the theater, they may be wondering whether that eternal man-woman anger isn’t something the playwright is working out for herself or on behalf of women friends. Whether or not, Schwend has conjured a rootin’-tootin’ escapade.
There’s no doubting that Ross’s Nice Girl has the appropriate title. Josephine (Diane Davis) is definitely a nice girl — not that she can always resist the temptation to swap sarcasms with habitually disapproving mother Francine (Kathryn Kates) in the modest David Meyer-designed home they share.
Josephine is getting closer to 40 than she’d like without being married, while feigning-illness Francine is wavering, at best, on the prospect of Josephine’s tying the knot with an eligible man. That man — former classmate, Donny (Nick Cordero) — turns up not too long after Josephine has run into him at his butcher shop and later that night encounters him again at a local nightclub where office pal, the fast-moving co-worker Sherry (Liv Rooth), has dragged her.
Apparently no longer married to his high school sweetheart, Donny turns out to be as nice a guy as Josephine is a nice girl — although there is a complication involving Sherry. As Josephine and Donny renew their friendship, they begin to show signs of having a future together, not that Francine doesn’t lodge objections and not that those objections don’t carry more weight with Josephine, despite the breakthroughs she and Donny make with each other. The respective honesty about their own failings is one of the strongest of dramatist Ross’s attractions.
Ross is writing about people who live their lives in quiet desperation around the kitchen table, on the front-porch swing, at their workaday jobs and during their unrewarding pastimes. She does a commendable job of capturing the plights of people who don’t expect happiness but are willing to settle for the best they think they can get. In this, she not only includes Josephine and Francine but Donny and Sherry as well. Making her melancholy point(s), she’s aided by her cast and director O’Donnell, who couldn’t be more sympathetic to the potentially deleterious effects of niceness.
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