What is David Cale’s Sandra (Vineyard Theater, until December 11) really about? It seems to be half soapy mystery, and half Shirley Valentine-like holiday personal liberation story. The story is high on melodrama (disappearance, hot sex, secret identities), and frustratingly detailed on some things and less on others. However, it is beautifully narrated by Marjan Neshat, one of the stars of one of this critic’s favorite plays of the year, English. Here, as in that production, Neshat has an innate warmth and authority.
In Sandra, directed by Leigh Silverman, the title character tries to find a gay best friend who has gone missing. Ethan was last seen in the Mexican gay vacation idyll of Puerto Vallarta, and so she heads there, Neshat imitating the people she meets along the way – who may or may not help her in her quest. As in Cale’s previous high-profile stage monologue, Harry Clarke performed by Billy Crudup, stage decoration (design is by Rachel Hauk) is minimal. Neshat, like Crudup, sits on a chair to address the audience, Neshat enclosed by two partitions with window cutouts. Thom Weaver’s lighting is smart and transporting when it comes to locations.
Ethan’s disappearance is the piece’s stimulating puzzle, but it’s strangely decentered from what we hear. Sandra’s adventure is about a hot Italian stranger who seduces her. She just got divorced from her husband, and being courted by this incredibly sexy, swimmer-like hunk is a delicious appetizer for a possible future. In one of the play’s most beautiful scenes, the chair is reimagined as a bed, in which the couple are curled up together.
But mr. Hot Stuff isn’t all that it seems, and Sandra soon finds herself dealing with a snowball of convoluted thrillers: a fire destroys her business, there are threatening phone calls, and the mystery of what happened to Ethan remains. For this critic — reflecting on the very real harm done to LGBTQ people around the world, as brutally witnessed this day at Club Q in Colorado Springs — the play is oddly unconcerned with Ethan and what really happened. happened to him. His life, his loves, his desires are set aside. Plot spoilers won’t be revealed here, but the final twist in the play is super-irritating and structurally undermining, prompting the thought of “Why couldn’t she have done this sooner?”
However, our audience was thrilled the entire time, palpably invested in what happened next. Neshat navigates both her character and the audience through the play’s spiraling complications as Sandra approaches the mystery of Ethan, which will change her life in every way. The plot of the story is sloppily executed, but the quieter moments of reflection – especially around the central theme of disappearance and identity – are pervasive; and Neshat is the best pilot, keeping everything in the air and ensuring a smooth landing.
Evanston Salt costs climbing
In the play by Will Arbery Evanston Salt Costs Climbing (new group / signature until December 18), four people try in vain – in no particular order – to fend off the end of the world, madness, sadness, the value of work and nervous breakdowns. Peter (Jeb Kreager) and Basil (Ken Leung) drive a salt truck that takes on the worst that Illinois winters can throw at the streets, Maiworm (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) is the middle-aged assistant director of public works who finally gains public recognition for her job, and her daughter Jane Jr. (Rachel Sachnoff) gets really deep really fast with whoever she is.
Jane Jr. also seems lonely, scared and in need of even more tender loving care than the wonderful Maiworm – who is only now excited about a new way to heat sidewalks and thus do away with expensive salt spreaders – seems to be able to foresee. Fresh off her starring role in the Shed’s Straight line crazyreturns the character of Jane Jacobs, the scourge of brutalist urbanism – played here by Leung – as an impatient ghost, dimly watching the events unfold.
Arbery’s play, directed with a playful puppet by Danya Taymor, deals with personal tragedies, as well as the much bigger ones that face the world thanks to our own neglect. It’s also about death and people struggling to grieve and move forward. It’s about a secret affair. Characters speak bluntly and clearly to each other. There is a lot of cursing. Major plot developments are hilariously chased away. There is a lady with a big hat, a kind of house ghost, who predicts even more strange things.
There are currently a few plays in which outstanding performances produce a new play for the audience. Here the quartet of performers delves deep into the absurdities and intensity of Arbery’s words. The result is a fascinating, surreal yet very real exploration of fragile lives.