By Naomi Wallace; Directed by Bill Rauch
Off Broadway, New Play
Runs through 12.20.15
Signature Theatre, 480 West 42nd Street
by Shani R. Friedman on 11.25.15
Ann Dowd, Dagmara Dominczyk and Bill Heck in Night Is A Room. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
BOTTOM LINE: Birthdays and surprise reunions take an unexpected turn in this biting relationship drama that redefines what it means to be family.
Liana (Dagmara Dominczyk), a successful British senior account director with a daughter in college, has been happily married for two decades. Inspired by a friend who found her biological dad when she was in her 40's, Liana, seeing herself as something like a conductor, decides to gift her husband Marcus (Bill Heck) for his 40th birthday the chance to meet his mother so that he may “live life more fully” like her friend. Liana has tracked her down and arrives, looking polished in an all black ensemble, with balloons that have bells inside for Dore (Ann Dowd). Dore is her physical opposite, looking dowdy in washed out muted colors, her mousy brown hair pulled back into a ponytail. It’s an awkward conversation between the two. Initially reluctant, Dore agrees to see her son, but insists it should be without Liana. The exchange is stilted at times, although that could be deliberate on Wallace’s part to illustrate how alien each of their lives is to the other and/or to provide the excellent Dowd a showcase as she’s given the greater emotional arc to explore.
Several weeks pass, during which Marcus has had his first encounter and other visits which Wallace has not included. On this afternoon, Dore is coming to Marcus and Liana's home. Before she's due, Marcus and Liana share an intimate moment. Dore walks in unannounced, calling Marcus Jonathan because his adopted name feels strange to her. Marcus hasn't mentioned this detail to Liana. Suddenly Dore announces that “Jonathan” will be leaving with her and not coming back. And it's true. There's more to this story but, at the risk of revealing spoilers I'll leave it vague. Liana is blidsided. The rage shifts to heartbreak as she begins to mourn the end of the life with a husband who would greet her at the door every day when she came home and rang the bell, their special time together. Marcus tries to explain to Liana that it wasn’t until his mother came into his life again that he felt “fully alive.” He leaves and they never see each other again.
Dominczyk is electric and utterly convincing during their brutal confrontation. Heck, who’s only in this scene, is engaging, but is hampered by a character whose motivations and actions are hard to reconcile and by the fact that Marcus is a largely passive figure, his responses mainly dictated by the women around him.
Years later the women cross paths. Liana has gone gray and lost some of her beauty, as well as her home and job. Dore has also been transformed, but in an inverse of their first meeting, it’s Dore who is elegant, confident and no longer seems like a sheltered, stunted bird. She speaks and moves with ease and without hesitation. Dowd is warm and funny, and effective as she conveys Dore's regrets and compassion. Liana’s fury though has only been corked and the two they have a riveting physical confrontation. Since that final night between the three of them, both have come to realize that, as Liana puts it, “no one is everything.”
Wallace is a Signature Theatre Residency One Playwright, this show the third and final one of her year-long residency. She has a great ear for dialogue and has crafted a vivid picture of the lives of the two very different women and the man that links them. I would tighten up the introduction or change the pacing. But as the play progresses, Rauch expertly guides the later intimacies and blow ups so that they crackle with energy and no moment seems extraneous. If you’re looking for a play with unpredictable twists and outstanding acting, especially from a character actor of Dowd’s caliber, you’ll be rewarded with a deft portrait of ruin and renewal.
(Night Is A Room is at the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center through December 20, 2015. The show runs two hours with an intermission. Performances are Tuesdays at 7:30; Wednesdays at 2 and 7:30; Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30; Fridays at 7:30; Saturdays at 8; and Sundays at 2. Tickets are $25 and available by visiting signaturetheatre.org by calling 212-244-7529.)
Night Is A Room is written by Naomi Wallace and directed by Bill Rauch. It is Presented by Signature Theatre. The design team includes Rachel Hauck (Scenic Design), Clint Ramos (Costume Design), Jen Schriever (Lighting Design), Leah Gelpe (Sound Design) and Charlotte Fleck (Dialect Coach). Cole P. Bonenberger is the Production Stage Manager.