By Melissa Ross; Directed by Mimi O'Donnell
Produced by Labyrinth Theater Company
Off Broadway, New Play
Extended through 6.21.15
Bank Street Theater, 155 Bank Street
by Adrienne Urbanski on 5.28.15
Diane Davis and Kathryn Kates in Nice Girl.
BOTTOM LINE: Strong performances from the cast and a detailed, well-designed set help to make this an enthralling production.
While the plot and premise of Nice Girl may not sound particularly unique or enticing, this appealing and compelling piece is proof that a high-quality production featuring exceptional actors can make what might seem like a run of the mill storyline into something extraordinary. The play focuses on Josephine (Diane Davis), a 37-year-old clerical worker living in a Boston suburb in 1984. She spends her days working in an accounting office listening to the tales of her promiscuous co-worker Sherry (Liv Rooth), and her nights cooking dinner and caring for her mother (Kathryn Kates) who rarely leaves the house and refuses to wear anything but a nightgown. From the opening scene, Josephine makes constant wise cracks to her mother about escaping life in suburban Boston, citing even Milwaukee, Wisconsin as a preferable destination.
Beneath Josephine’s jokes one can detect the truth in her words: that spending the rest of her life taking care of her mysteriously addled mother is not something she can readily accept. When she receives notice of her 20th high school reunion, Josephine begins to wake up to the reality of her life, wondering if there can in fact be more. Sherry begins to invite Josephine out to singles bars where Josephine gets a taste for the freedoms she has been denying herself. After a run-in with a newly separated former high school classmate (Nick Cordero), Josephine sees a new romance as a means to find a new self, but soon finds that a new life is something she will have to find on her own.
Part of what makes Nice Girl such a joy to watch is the believability of the production, which creates the effect that you had sneaked a peek into someone else’s life. The intricacy and versatility of David Meyer's set is one of the factors contributing to this effect. While many plays stay in one setting, Nice Girl changes the locale frequently, with walls that roll forward and backward quickly transforming interior scenes into exterior scenes. The actors also prepare and eat real food, and Josephine’s kitchen sports every detail a typical home in 1984 would have, down to her mother staring at episodes of the Today show from the 1980s.
While the characters here have the potential to become caricatures, the cast, with the help of director Mimi O’Donnell, all give vulnerability and nuance to their roles. While the trashy barhopping, blue eyeshadow-wearing Sherri seems every bit a cartoon of 1980’s tastelessness, Rooth's performance (along with Ross’s writing) creates a more complex character. Ross’s writing also adds emotional complexity and well-wrought tension to a simple story, and merges fast-paced humor with moments of emotional intensity that never delve into sentimentality. Nice Girl is a show that will appeal to many, especially those who often eschew theater in favor of the cinema. From start to finish I found this to be a completely enthralling production.
(Nice Girl plays at the Bank Street Theater, 155 Bank Street, through June 21, 2015. Performances are Tuesdays at 7; Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8; and Sundays at 7. There are additional matinees on Sunday June 7 at 3, and Saturday June 13 at 2. Tickets are $25; $40 after June 7, and are available at labtheater.org or by calling 212.513.1080.)