Monday, October 5, 2009

Prairie home companion

Ronan Noone's new play, Little Black Dress, arrives with a four-page, single-spaced preface/screed from the author detailing the play's long sojourn in "development hell," which in this case stretched over three and a half years. Over that time the playwright packed up his Dress and took it to Aspen, Austin, and Newton, and twice to New York. He modeled it once at Vassar, and then one final time here at his local launching pad, the Boston Playwrights' Theatre (where a fully-produced version plays through Oct. 24). Noone writes that at one point in the course of the seven readings and sixteen drafts, he'd "forgotten why I wrote the play, and was quite sick of this rollercoaster of cheap readings, short rehearsals, and frustrating dependence on feedback from an unknown audience." Yet by the finish, it seems (I'm guessing here) that he'd pulled the play "back into its original shape" and had at the same time "improved [its] mechanics, raised the stakes, refined lines, and discovered, finally, that the whole process was not a failure after all."

Okay. Then he rewrote it one more time.

And the really sad thing is . . . the play still needs work.

So I guess it's lucky that even now, the program includes a sheet of paper soliciting audience comments!

Reading this stuff, it's hard not to both sympathize with Noone (at right) and yet be somewhat skeptical of his self-deceived grievance. On the one hand, everyone knows what it's like to try to create something fresh and new while being assailed by contradictory advice and agendas. On the other hand, Noone repeatedly seeks out these assaults himself - we can only assume because nobody's agreed to produce the play as is; in essence, while railing against the commercial demands placed on his work by the development process, the author is on a mission to, yes, make it more commercial via the development process.

The irony is that if, indeed, Noone did reject most of the advice that came out of that process, then perhaps he did himself a disservice. Because Little Black Dress, like much of his work, starts strong, with coiled, blackly comic monologues, a bleakly amoral POV, and tightly structured scenes. But slowly it goes haywire, and we can feel, even if the playwright can't, precisely where and how it jumps the rails. In a word, Little Black Dress wants to be like its namesake: black, sleek, and making a short, spicy statement. But Noone begins embroidering all over it, adding flounces and dropping the hem; by the finale, the play is barely a little black dress at all; indeed, we're not sure what it is.

So if there were an intermission, my advice would be to leave during it, because for more than two thirds of its course, Little Black Dress is a nasty hoot, and it's being played to the hilt by a wicked-good cast at Boston Playwrights' Theatre.

But there's no intermission. So you have to take the good with the bad. And to be honest, there's still plenty of good. Noone's premise - two horny Kansas lads launch a gigolo service for the lovelorn ladies of the lone prairie - may feel a bit Risky Business-ish, but it has the same frank, amoral coldness that gave The Atheist its bite, and the playwright has a twist at hand (one of the boys is servicing the other's mom) that we feel could lift the proceedings to "the next level," as they say in the lower circles of development hell.

What's more, Noone has the benefit of a crackling cast and nearly-flawless direction. Marianna Bassham captures every lonely heartbeat of Amy, the long-suffering spouse and faithless wife who yearns to don that titular dress and escape to Florida - but who also knows that to "make your fantasy come true, you have to make some sacrifices," and has begun to wonder just how big a moral sacrifice she might be capable of making. Meanwhile Karl Baker Olson makes you forget all about his earlier, suffering-geek performances with his hungry-eyed young comer (literally), and Alex Pollock raises self-conscious dorkery to an art form as the reluctant business partner whose mother is also a client. Rounding out this dysfunctional heartland quartet is local stalwart Jeremiah Kissel, who brings his usual energy to a nasty turn as the average-joe husband who may, or may not, be the villain of the piece. Director Ari Edelson adds some flourishes here and there that hint at something like the amoral synchronicity of cyberspace, and there are a few, less-successful gestures toward pantomime (and maybe even dance). But in general this mostly-natuaralistic production is strong enough to serve as precisely what the author needs - an x-ray of his script that reveals what's broken in its structure.

Whether he'll be able to take advantage of the opportunity, of course, is another question; focus and build are hard things to pull off, but are in general required when murder, or even manslaughter, are in a playwright's sights. And focus and build are what Little Black Dress desperately needs; it's basically too skimpy a conceit to cover the doubly-ironic-dénouements and dance numbers Noone begins to load onto it. Indeed, towards the finish one gets the impression the playwright has the idea that writing characters who are morally off-hand means that he can afford to be off-hand too. Unfortunately, that's a fantasy worthy of his leading lady.


  1. Dear Sir
    Why not review the play and leave it at that. Venting bile on a preface is unnecessary and beneath you
    Ciaran Crawford

  2. Sorry, but Noone's preface is per force part of this particular performance; you really can't sit down and write, then publish to your audience, a four-page essay about your play while pretending to yourself that people aren't going to discuss the work within its context. I admit, also, that I'm somewhat troubled by the way Noone has been edging more and more personally into a spotlight that should be given over to the work itself. Less, please. (And just btw, that wasn't "bile." You don't know from bile.)