Perhaps the yuck factor of Night is a Room’s sexual proclivities elicits giggles as a cover for not knowing how or for whom to care.
Night is a Room by Naomi Wallace. Directed by Bill Rauch. Staged by the Signature Theatre Company, Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, through December 20.
By Joann Green Breuer
As the final play in her Signature Theater residence, Naomi Wallace has chosen to “restrict herself” to reality, that is to a true family story she had heard and which seemed to haunt her more than the ghosts of her previous texts.
To stage the tale, Wallace chose Bill Rauch, artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival where her history play The Liquid Plain, ghost and all, had recently been produced. Her choice of Rauch, who did not direct TLP, but did stage several others at OSF that season, was as much for his ‘brilliance’ as for his “honesty.” (He suggested the elimination of her script’s final act—which he ‘hated.’ She followed his advice.) I have no idea what Rauch said to her on the initial reading of Night is a Room, but I would not be surprised if, for the first time, words eluded him. Yes, “Night is a room darkened for lovers,” as William Carlos Williams plainchants, but I doubt he had these particular lovers in mind. Luckily, Rauch puts his singular mind to work on other issues as the plot darkens and, despite the despicable, he does find something stageworthy to say.
After, for Rauch, a surprisingly shaky opening scene, with a lot of hot air (literally) and random ups and downs, the director and Wallace steady their hands even as the world they create falls apart. The prefiguring is obvious, lumpy, and unworthy of the pair’s talents. The play will probably be noted for its sexual proclivities—more of that in a moment—but at the center of this daring, if not distasteful, storyline is Liana, (Dagmara Dominczyk), wife of Marcus (Bill Heck).
Marcus may be victim of his own overcharged libido, but he is content in his self-awareness. Liana is elegant and assured, until all outward show is stripped, and she knows that she does not really know herself. “I am what is around me,” sings another Wallace (Stevens), “women understand this.” What Wallace has written and set designer Rachel Hauck have built as the home around Liana is an unfinished room, the perfect mirror for her incomplete life. Without walls, boundaries are temptingly overstepped.
For the Greeks, incest served as the catalyst for the destruction of a dynasty. Liana is queen for a day—or presumes herself to be—and then night falls. Take the illicit sexuality however you will, and leave the production with Liana in mind. I believe that is where Rauch’s directorial vision lies. He is extremely well served by Hauck. Her essential minimalism parallels Wallace’s spare and incisive language, a bit of unexpected humor, a strained, cunning caesura while the heart races. Hauck uses the set to build the plot. Note stage left imagery from scene one through scene three: at first, a pile of rocks on which Liana loses her balance, then a masked exit/entrance of her home (who is this who enters and leaves my life/home), and finally the final barren horizontal in which lie one’s dashed dreams. Note also, of course, the chairs. Ionesco has nothing on this, at first, wobbly trio, which then multiply in number and insubstantiality. There is no expectation of domestic security, even at its most basic.
Marcus’s mother, Doré (Ann Dowd) was 15 when her son was born. He was adopted. They have not seen each other for 40 years, until now. We are not permitted by the text to witness that first meeting. Nor will we witness their subsequent life together. Wallace grants a caesura of action as sly in its intimations as the silences within her phrasings. Wallace demands that we endure in imagination the courage of her convictions. Rauch acquiesces, as personal privacy is undone: bare body, and bodily emanations, visualized sans nudity. As a consequence, whatever shocks, or embarrasses, or amuses does so with an unfamiliar intensity, and often a needed dose of pity—if not compassion.
Dowd as Doré is a fine actress, fitted to appear considerably older than the character’s 55 years (60 being the new 40). Such an age gap may make her relationship with her son seem weirder than it is (if that is possible); it certainly makes it more unbelievable and ultimately devastating to Liana. The point needn’t have been pushed quite so hard, pointed enough as it is. Dowd’s Doré is contained and curt (until she isn’t); the actress embraces the distortions of her character with a kind of odd, old-world dignity, both alienating and magnetic. She is aided with the sleight of hand of costume designer Clint Ramos. Note how subtly the black folds in the women’s dresses are reversed from scene one to scene three. The replacement is painted in pain, and makes metaphoric sense.
As Marcus, the third leg of this untenable stool, Heck shows man at his weakest. He does so with sleazy ease, and unabashed ego. We are given hints of his unsavory history so we are not entirely bewildered when he lives up to it. One, like Liana, maintains hope, here akin to self-serving blindness. Marcus is, after all, a handsome husband if a handful…
The trio of actors take their roles seriously and as far as publicly acceptable. They are shamelessly intimate, both at a distance and when at each other’s throat (and other less exposed body parts). Yet there is a chill throughout this production. Perhaps those opening scene balloons let us know too soon and too clearly that this world will be blown up and apart, or perhaps the yuck factor of the catalyst elicits giggles as a cover for not knowing how or for whom to care. Tattered lives continue as the proverbial curtain falls on this night room. We are left, like the characters, rattling not a sabre but a fork, drawing little blood amid much bluster.
Joann Green Breuer is artistic associate of the Vineyard Playhouse.