Daisy B. Foote has achieved that dubious feat of having both overwritten and underwritten her new play, “When They Speak of Rita,” which receives its world premiere at Primary Stages. While there is barely any connective tissue between several of the drama’s most pivotal scenes, Foote’s pink-collar heroine Rita often displays an analyst’s precision at pinpointing the precise nature of her own dilemma. It’s a problem of not enough words and yet too many. Any other play would appear to be doomed. Fortunately for Foote, she shows exquisite taste in immediate family members who include her father, director Horton Foote, and sister, lead actress Hallie Foote. For all its considerable, nearly fatal flaws, “When They Speak of Rita” gradually ascends to scenes of rare poignancy in these capable hands. Family does know best.
“When They Speak of Rita” is the kind of American kitchen-sink play in which you don’t have to wait long for any one announcement to deliver on its big follow-up: When Rita’s husband, Asa (Ken Marks), says his job is in trouble; he finds himself unemployed in the next scene. When Rita’s teenage son, Warren (Jamie Bennett), has sex with his girlfriend, Jeannie (Margot White), she is pregnant as soon as the stage lights come up. When Warren’s young friend Jimmy (Ebon Moss-Bacharach) says he likes Rita’s pumpkin pie, they run off together five minutes later.
At age 41, Rita doesn’t dream big. She merely wants to stop cleaning other people’s houses and start up a catering business in her small New Hampshire town. Not that it would help. A creature of quiet yet deepest discontentment, Rita despairs from her realization that she is without talent of any real significance.
Yes, she can cook a mean chicken cutlet, but the catering people are looking for someone “who can make swans out of cheese dip.” Jimmy, fond of her desserts, calls her a star. Rita replies that she is in fact a “brown dwarf,” one of many burnt-out stars floating aimlessly through the galaxy.
Daisy B. Foote should know better. Rita, an avid TV watcher, would conjure up some Oprah moment rather than reference A&E. One of the playwright’s better ideas is how Jimmy and Jeannie are more Rita’s children than is her own son.
But again the playwright puts a ton too many words in her character’s mouth, and Rita, too, pointedly wonders why she never found her daughter-in-law’s contentment with a husband and child.
Despite such missteps, “When They Speak of Rita” eventually arrives at a very obscure corner in the psyche of an American marriage. In carefully muted performances, Hallie Foote and Ken Marks wear the vacant stares of those people in Diane Arbus’ photographs, and when they speak, it’s in a clipped, halting speech pattern that initially conjures up the same Middle America wasteland.
Horton Foote keeps an especially tight lid on his ensemble, an aspect of his direction that most compliments and respects his daughter’s play. When big, expected confrontations between Rita and Asa oddly never materialize, their remarkable reserve gradually comes to reveal the layering of scar tissue over wounds that will never really heal. It is Rita’s peculiar gift to Asa that she makes him feel not only her anguish but his as well.
The emotional outbursts are left to Rita and Asa’s son, who has yet to learn his mother’s deadly survival technique. Bennett’s baby-faced goodlooks are the perfect counterpoint to his character’s violence, and the young actor delivers a powerful performance.
Also fine are Moss-Bachrach as Rita’s awkward lover and White as the teenage mother who too easily throws away a college scholarship to become a lost woman’s mirror-image.
Set designer Jeff Cowie divides the stage between the couple’s home and their son’s garage. The split focus works remarkably well, thanks in part to Deborah Constantine’s lighting. When our attention is directed to the kitchen, you can almost smell the sugar-overload in Rita’s cooking. No wonder her family lives in a coma.