“Night is a Room” is the last of Naomi Wallace’s plays in the Signature season devoted to her work, and it is the most gratifying– but only for the first half.
In place of her other plays’ grim and arty lyricism about long-ago historical events (“The Liquid Plain,” “And I and Silence”), “Night is a Room” is set in England in the present day and begins with two plain-speaking women in a backyard. The acting starts out so fine and nuanced that one feels excited and even comforted by the promise of an assured theatrical journey.
Liana (Dagmara Dominczyk) is well dressed and garrulous while Dore (the amazing Ann Dowd) is older, dowdy and shy. There is an awkwardness between the two women (and humor in that awkwardness), and we soon learn what it’s about: Liana has tracked down Dore because Dore is the mother of Liana’s husband Marcus – an unwed mother at age 15 who was forced to give up her child to adoption. Liana wants to surprise Marcus (Ben Heck) for his 40th birthday by having him meet his birth mother.
“It’s not a good idea,” Dore says, avoiding eye contact. But Liana eventually persuades her to meet her son.
It turns out to be a terrible idea, certainly for Liana.
Since “Night Is A Room” pivots on a shocking development that turns the characters’ world upside down, it is difficult to discuss the play without revealing what many would consider a spoiler.
At the risk of being coy, let’s just say that the plot is reminiscent in some ways of Edward Albee’s “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?” in that a forbidden love is involved. But Albee’s play is as much about the complicated reaction of family and friends to the main character’s bestiality. Naomi Wallace, who has said that “Night is A Room” is based on a true story that somebody told her, devotes the first hour of her play to the set-up, and then the shock, letting the audience absorb what’s happened in a long, well-done dramatic scene. But after that, the playwright doesn’t seem to know where to go. The characters’ reactions are one-note; the remaining plot is uninteresting and pointlessly prolonged. We do see the characters transformed, but it is a physical transformation, representing impressive work by the actors (and the costume designer), but little more than that; there is little light cast on our social mores or the human condition.
Wallace’s strength is in her lyricism more than her storytelling; indeed, the lyricism in her plays arguably serves as a protective shield against a clear-eyed assessment of their structure. But there is little of her usual lyricism in “Night Is A Room.” Dore does say some poetic-like things about her dreams and about trees, but they come off as her personal oddness rather than as integral to the world that Wallace has created.
The title of the play comes from a line in a poem by William Carlos Williams entitled “Complaint.” Williams, who was a physician as well as a poet, writes about a cold, late-night house call to a sick woman, “perhaps laboring
to give birth to a tenth child…
Night is a room
darkened for lovers,
through the jalousies the sun
has sent one golden needle!
I pick the hair from her eyes
and watch her misery
How vivid, how moving, how dramatic — what a play that poem could make.
Click on any photograph by T. Charles Erickson to see it enlarged
Night Is A Room
At the Signature Center
Written by Naomi Wallace
Directed by Bill Rauch
Rachel Hauck (scenic design), Clint Ramos (costume design), Jen Schriever (lighting design), Leah Gelpe (sound design)
Cast: Dagmara Dominczyk, Ann Dowd, Ben Hecht
Running time: Two hours including one intermission.
Tickets: $25 until December 13; $35-$65 afterwards
Night Is A Room is scheduled to run through December 20, 2015