By Elaine Liner
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
As soon as Esther, the modest black seamstress at the center of Intimate Apparel, says she's sewn her life savings into the lining of her quilt, the countdown begins. Somebody's going to rip that quilt apart and rip Esther off. It's that kind of story, and she's the kind of character. But who will do it? And how long do we have to wait to see it done? Tick tock.
That's the flimsy fabric of plotting and in Lynn Nottage's prize-winning but oddly disappointing 2004 drama, now onstage at Addison's WaterTower Theatre. Laden with well-researched historical references about life for the underclass in 1905 Manhattan, it comes up far short of being a black Age of Innocence.
The play intertwines the sagas of a small group of characters who could have worked backstairs jobs for some of the upper-crust nobs in an Edith Wharton novel. Esther, played by Stormi Demerson, is a self-employed maker of women's unmentionables. She's portrayed as both victim and conqueror (in a way) of a society anchored to rigid rules about public and private behavior. There's ambition and business savvy in her, but she knows her place.
Other characters in Intimate Apparel—Esther's proud boardinghouse landlady, Mrs. Dickson (M. Denise Lee); prostitute Mayme (Lisa B. Whitfield) for whom Esther sews fancy lingerie; and Mrs. Van Buren (Emily Banks), the cosseted white lady who lounges corseted in a wine-red boudoir—all are intriguing enough to have been threads in the intricate fabric of a Wharton book. But they would have been peripheral, not central figures, and this is the weakness of Nottage's play. With its focus on women who are decidedly unglamorous bit players in the grandest days of Old New York, the gas-lamp era story dims and sputters.
The overlong first act provides too much complicated exposition about how Esther came to live and sew in Mrs. Dickson's rooming house for 18 years. About to turn 35, Esther's an old maid weary of creating honeymoon nighties for her friends. It's time for her to find a worthy husband of her own. When Mrs. Dickson hands over a letter from a lonely bachelor looking for a pen pal, Esther hears wedding bells.
Over months of correspondence—and this is still Act 1—Esther gets to know George Armstrong (Bryan Pitts), a West Indian digging the Panama Canal. Esther is illiterate, so she enlists Mrs. Van Buren, a fluttery Fifth Avenue customer, to pen the billets-doux for her. On scenic designer Randel Wright's set, George answers the letters aloud from a high perch behind shimmery floor-to-ceiling swathes of diaphanous silk. Only when he lands in New York to marry Esther does he step out from behind the gauzy curtains.
He's as handsome as his words. He's also a liar. Like one of Wharton's cads, George is a clever prevaricator who offers no explanations for his lies and no apologies for his betrayals. Esther's dream of opening a beauty parlor in Harlem disappears along with the cash she's stitched into that quilt. Her hopes for a happy, virtuous life with George—and our hopes for a less predictable ending to her sad story—are dashed long before Nottage allows the play to end gracefully.
That's because there's a time-sapping subplot about Mr. Marks (Dan Forsythe), a Jewish dry-goods seller on the Lower East Side with whom Esther forms an unlikely and, for the time period, unacceptable friendship. Once a week, Esther drinks tea and talks tailoring with Mr. Marks, whose religious beliefs don't allow Esther, or any unmarried woman for that matter, even to shake his hand. The shy woman likes the formal manners of this man far more than George's sweaty pawing, but her sense of propriety would never allow her to cross class and racial boundaries. The scenes between Esther and Mr. Marks may be the sweetest of the play, but there are just too many of them. He's a Jew; she's African-American. Oy vey, get on with it.
As the play grows evermore tedious, so does the production, directed by Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe. The actors move and speak so slowly the audience grows restless. Only when the always glorious Denise Lee appears for her short scenes as the landlady do things pick up. At least we can hear her. Low-energy Demerson speaks so softly it's as if she's forgotten that she's un-miked.
Whitfield, however, is a spitfire as the saucy Mayme, capturing the wan sadness of the tired whore who yearns for respectability. Emily Banks lets her stab at a Mid-Atlantic accent slip into Southern drawl now and then, but she's a bouncy Mrs. Van Buren. And as George, Bryan Pitts has to underplay to match Demerson's low-impact acting, so he's only half the sexy beast he might have been with a more dynamic actress.
Like a dress three sizes too big, Esther is just a poor fit on this play's leading lady.
Matching the actor with the role—that's so often the secret of success in live theater. Second Thought Theatre, once the scrappy little band of Baylor drama grads trying to make it in the big city, is now a company of experienced artists finishing their fourth full season of shows. Their latest, in the small theater at WaterTower in Addison, is Kenneth Lonergan's Lobby Hero, a Mamet-like comedy that feels small but requires big talent to let its quartet of workaday characters come believably to life.