Lydia R. Diamond’s dialogue is funny and cutting; when it needs to it digs deep, mining gems of psychological insight.
The Gift Horse by Lydia R. Diamond. Directed by Jim Petosa. Scenic design by Jon Savage. Lighting design by Alberto Segarra. Costume design by Penney Pinette. Sound design and Composition by Dewey Dellay. Produced by New Rep. Staged at Mosesian Center for the Arts, Arsenal Street, Watertown, MA, through May 14th.
By David Greenham
The gifted dramatist Lydia R. Diamond keeps hitting us right between the eyes. She has come up with a remarkable string of successful plays, including Stick Fly, which enjoyed a Broadway run in 2011, and her most recent, Smart People, which wowed locals (as well as The Arts Fuse) when it was staged at the Huntington Theatre Company in 2014. So the New Rep was wise when it decided to search into her past work. They have come up with a crafty production of her early hit The Gift Horse, which was developed via a series of workshops at Chicago Dramatists and premiered in 2001 at the Goodman Theater.
The Gift Horse introduces us to Ruth (Obehi Janice), a well-educated, smart, and quick-witted modern woman who is trying to succeed in an uncooperative world. She’s pushy, determined, and driven. Perhaps there’s even more than a little forced optimism packed in there. In college, she meets – well, hits on – Ernesto (Alejandro Simoes) who’s gay, and the two become the closest of friends. They begin to save each other’s lives.
Diamond’s dialogue is funny and cutting; when it needs to it digs deep, mining gems of psychological insight. We meet friends, lovers, and even a child, in a series of scenes that transition – backwards, forwards, and even sideways — seamlessly, assisted by Jon Savage’s stylish and polished urbanesque set. There is a lot going on here; The Gift Horse is obviously the work of an ambitious writer early in her career, so there are moments of confusion. But director Jim Petosa leads us through the plot’s churning mix of time and place with the same kind of swift skill and panache that drives Ruth. Petosa and Diamond push us into some edgy places, particularly when Ruth is stopped cold in her tracks when she learns that, sometimes, you have to look a gift horse in the mouth.
The Gift Horse also bears unusual gift of its own. Jordan (Cloteal L. Horne) is an omnipresent but mysterious part of the narrative. Seated downstage holding a cello, she plays music at times; at other times she breaks the fourth wall and gives us information that we can’t quite make sense of. Mostly she just listens and reacts to the story of Ruth and Ernesto’s lives. The pair laugh and cry their way through experiences of love, loss, hope, and devastation. All the while, Jordan is present, nodding and smirking, discovering her way through their story, just as we do. Jordan even comments on her connection with us. She returns in a flurry after intermission and asks, “Did you miss me?” She’s encouraged us to speak by that point (at least at the performance I attended). Many responded “Yes.” “You don’t even know who I am,” she reminded us.
As Ruth, Obehi Janice exudes, at her best, a controlled energy. When the balance is off her delivery become a bit too sit-comish; there are occasions when she is so excited she gets ahead of herself, and us. But her articulation of the character’s emotions are charged and gripping. Janice’s strongest moments come when she (indirectly) shows how deeply rooted she is in the lives of those who are close to her. She judges herself harshly: “It’s obscene how self-centered I am.” But that’s only part of her psyche. We see it, even if she doesn’t.
Alejando Simones gives a skillfully understated performance as Ernesto, the perfect gentle soul of a comrade for Ruth. He’s innocent and naïve when we first meet him: his inner strength grows before our eyes. Ernesto’s lovers are played with agility: there’s Lewis D. Wheeler’s shifty Bill and Zachary Rice’s comforting Noah. Ruth’s complicated life becomes even thornier when Brian (Maurice Emmanuel Parent) enters the picture; he is her therapist and eventually becomes her husband. Brian is the least successful of Diamond’s characters, but in the adroit hands of Parent you might not notice.
Horne’s sparkling Jordan transports us to the lovely twists in the play’s final moments. The character has been a paradox for most of the play: emotionally engaged, yet strangely detached as well. At the right moment, she slips seamlessly into the drama (Diamond’s talent for dramatic surprises was there from the beginning), and guides us through to the touching end. It is a limitation that Horne doesn’t play the cello (the actress mimes Dewey Delay’s sweet sound), but what was important to Petosa is that Horne could rise to the expressive challenge.
Jon Savage’s set, Penney Pinettte’s costumes, and Alberto Segarra’s lighting create a monochromatic world — Jordan’s garb and the honey brown of the cello are the only infusions of color. The design team expertly serve the actors and director as they explore the script’s tones and gradations. The result is a compelling — if sometimes forced — trip to a renewed vision of domesticity. The love shared by Diamond’s characters blossoms into a distinctive take on the modern family. This early play doesn’t have the thematic muscularity of the thoroughbreds to come, but it is very much in the race.
David Greenham is an adjunct professor of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the Program Director for the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine. He spent 14 years leading the Theater at Monmouth, and has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 25 years.