Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
Challenged by a chauvinistic comment after her 2011 Edinburgh Festival solo show, playwright Sabrina Mahfouz is determined to write “a tale of three females who could easily be the basis of crime-based computer games.” The result “Clean” is currently running at 59E59 Theater B as part of the Brits Off-Broadway Series. The short play is paired with Douglas Maxwell’s “A Respectable Widow Takes to Vulgarity” both offerings by Edinburgh’s The Traverse Theater Company. But first, “Clean.”
Three very talented actors are determined to mine the meaning from Ms. Mahfouz’s forty-five minute prose-poem adventure into the female world of “clean crime” but come to the surface without emerald or diamond in tow. There is much movement about the stage standing and sitting atop three white boxes – all carefully orchestrated by director Orla O’Loughlin – but there is little depth to the story line. Unfortunately the characters have lackluster conflicts which spin rather uninteresting plots. The three adventurers risk life and limb to exact revenge on nemesis Kristof and collect a hefty reward from Caitlin; however, the script does not give the actors much to work with to empower their performances with authenticity and honesty. Ultimately, it is difficult to care about any of their stories.
Despite moving to Level Two in their Dream Play computer-based crime computer game, Chloe (Jade Anouka) and Katya (Chloe Massey) eschew any further involvement in “clean crime” capers. Chloe decides to “disappear into the countryside” and Katya “misses her family” and chooses to “help things in [her] country.” Only Zainab (Emma Dennis-Edwards) decides to stay the “clean crime” course: “A normal life is behind me now, has been for a while but now it’s cemented, solid, this is it for me.” The three “gamers” hug each other at play’s end looking like “they have not been so close to another soul in a while” but this on stage bonding does little to connect the play to the audience hungry for the same closeness.
Douglas Maxwell’s “A Respectable Widow Takes to Vulgarity” – the second short play in the Traverse Theater Double Bill – comes up the winner and engages the post-intermission audience with a brilliant script and riveting performances by Joanna Tope and Gavin Jon Wright. Ms. Tope plays Annabelle Love a grieving widow just after the “beautiful ceremony” for her deceased husband. At this point one sees a rather tightly wound wealthy woman willing to put grief aside to greet well-wishers, especially those employees from her husband’s company. Mr. Wright plays Jim Dick one of those employees who enjoys the time off work to come pay his respects to the former company owner. At this point one sees a rather loosely wound young man who while shaking hands in the reception line (non-consciously) refers to Annabelle’s dead husband with a particularly vulgar epithet.
Assuming he has been sacked, Jim Dick flees to his favorite Burger King where Annabelle joins him unexpectedly still holding her glass of wine. What follows is forty-five minutes of brilliant hilarity as Jim and Annabelle explore the meaning of language and relationships in non-conventional ways. Mr. Maxwell has created a conversation that gets at the very heart of language and its efficacy and at the very heart of what is significant in the matrix of human relationships. The script is spot on; the direction by Orla O’Loughlin is precise and punctilious; and the performances are riveting, authentic, honest, and engaging.
Jim Dick enables Annabelle to express herself in ways she had not considered in the past – through the words she chooses and the company she keeps. The content of this humorous play is as serious as it comes. Jim and Annabelle share these thoughts after Jim unpacks some vernacular for Annabelle:
“JIM: There’s a phrase, ‘come to grips,’ meaning, like, ‘get a grip.’ Over time folk must’ve changed their ‘grips’ to [expletive deleted].”
ANNABELLE: That’s what happens to language. It’s not erosion – as the didactical would have it – it grows.”
“A Respectable Widow” is a powerhouse of a play, the kind of product one has come to expect of The Traverse Theater. Audience members will review their cache of “small talk” and be challenged to communicate in the future with more honesty and more effectiveness. Language is power. Just ask any respectable widow gone vulgar.