Thursday, April 10, 2014

Double Bill: A Respectable Widow Takes to Vulgarity and Clean at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Emma Dennis Edwards, Chloe Massey, and Jade Anouka in CLEAN.  Photo by Jeremy Abrahams.
Zainab (Emma Dennis-Edwards), of mixed British-Egyptian descent, is a young, street-savvy, London criminal, specializing in identity theft.  Chloe (Jade Anouka), a slightly older, more refined, but equally dishonest Brit, is a highly successful emeralds smuggler.  And Katya (Chloe Massey), a Russian émigré, not quite old enough to be ex-KGB agent (but then again: Who really knows?), is the third female criminal, her forte being market manipulation, with occasional forays into diamond smuggling.

What the three women have in common is that they are all, as Zainab expresses it, “clean crime ladies…meaning no death no blood no mess kinda ting but still illegal as sin.”  And they are all exceptionally competent at what they do, prompting Caitlin, the co-owner of the club at which the three hang out, to recruit them to work as a team in the biggest caper of their lives.  It will be up to them to steal an incredibly well-guarded microchip from the notorious Kristof Clementine who, at one time or another, not only hurt Caitlin, but brought harm to Chloe and Katya as well.

If all of this sounds more like a video game than a stage play, well, that’s because in a way it really is.  When Sabrina Mahfouz wrote Clean, it was with the specific intent to “write a tale of three females who could easily be the basis of crime-based computer games”  (ostensibly as a way to redress the imbalance between the number of male anti-heroes and the number of female anti-heroes in video games).  In that, she clearly has succeeded: she has penned a rhythmical, rhyming, rap song of a play embodying the essence of a video game and she is fortunate that Dennis-Edwards, Anouka, and Massey are all exceptionally talented and play their roles with great panache.

But to what avail?  When all is said and done, it still all amounts to little more than a video game, necessarily derivative and corny.  Even granted that it’s largely tongue-in-cheek, that Mahfouz is a clever wordsmith, and that the dynamic trio are just that – a dynamic trio – we really have seen it all before and just because the play’s three protagonists are women rather than men doesn’t make it really different or compelling.

L-R: Gavin Jon Wright and Joanna Tope in A RESPECTABLE WIDOW TAKES TO VULGARITY.  Photo by Jeremy Abrahams.
Clean is just one half of the Double Bill currently being presented by The Traverse Theatre Company of Edinburgh at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan (the other half is A Respectable Widow Takes to Vulgarity by Douglas Maxwell).  Both short plays are enjoying their US premieres and are directed by Orla O’Loughlin in 59E59 Theater’s Scotland Week (the first week in its highly regarded annual Brits Off Broadway program.  And the second of the two, A Respectable Widow Takes to Vulgarity, is a real winner.

In A Respectable Widow Takes to Vulgarity, Annabelle Love (Joanna Tope), mourning the loss of her husband, encounters Jim Dick (Gavin Jon Wright), one of her late husband’s employees.  In this terrific two-hander, the well-bred Annabelle learns more from Jim about language – its uses and abuses – than either Wittgenstein or Chomsky might ever have dreamt of in their philosophies.  Words, even the most vulgar of words, can mean very different things to different people and in different contexts.  They may have the most innocent, even endearing, connotations in some situations while other seemingly much more innocuous remarks may elicit far more negative reactions.  (Just think of the difference in reaction to the use of the N-word when the slur is hurled at an African-American employee by his white boss and when it is used by a black teenager innocently bantering with his black teenage friend.)

Along the way, both Annabelle and Jim learn much more about many other aspects of life as well – what it means to grieve, for instance, or how differently those in different socio-economic classes may see the world.

Joanna Tope is marvelous as Annabelle as she evolves from being the type of well-bred matron about whom one initially have said “Butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth” to one who could hold her own among a group of sailors.  Gavin Jon Wright is equally delightful as Jim, whose unusual relationship with Annabelle ultimately enables him to see the world as he never has before.  They play off one another wonderfully and it makes for an exceptionally enjoyable theatrical experience.

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