Richard Nelson’s new play is a distaff companion piece to his last, “Madame Melville.” It, too, is a bittersweet memory play narrated by a character looking back on a time of emotional and sexual confusion. It, too, depicts a sensitive, yearning youngster encountering life-changing experiences in an exotic locale. The playwright appears to be temporarily fixated on writing delicately observed, gently nostalgic epiphanies for the stage.
In this case the teenager on a voyage of self-discovery is 17-year-old Franny, who is happily fleeing dull, old Millbrook for a weekend in alluringly bohemian 1957 Greenwich Village (in “Madame M.” we were in the equally romantic 1960s Paris, and the teen on the cusp of adulthood was played by Macaulay Culkin).
The elder Franny narrates the tale from a distance of years. She is played by Kathleen Widdoes, doubling as Franny’s grandma Marjorie, who is chaperoning Franny (Elizabeth Moss) and her 15-year-old sister, Dolly, on a visit to their cousin Sally (Yvonne Woods) and her husband, Phil (Jesse Pennington).
The occasion for the trip is illustrated in the play’s arresting opening scene, in which sexual ecstasy and tragedy are violently juxtaposed. The scene — indeed, the entire play — is lit with astonishing delicacy by Jennifer Tipton, whose work has the evocative emotional texture we associate with paintings by Old Masters. This brief sequence is nicely staged by the playwright, too, on a set by Thomas Lynch that is pungent of both period and place. But the lasting emotional afterglow it leaves drains away over the course of the ensuing 90 minutes of minor-key angst, sexual frustration and sublimated emotion.
Grandma is hoping to cheer up the distraught Sally, who is nearly unhinged by the sudden death of her young baby as well as her husband’s new sexual reticence. In her distraction Marjorie somewhat surprisingly allows 17-year-old Franny to waltz off unattended to meet a friend at NYU while she and Dolly head to Gimbel’s and then a matinee of “My Fair Lady.”
Both girls have a secret agenda: Franny is really planning to meet a boyfriend, while Dolly has arranged a clandestine rendezvous with the girls’ mother, who left their father (Marjorie’s son) for another man and has disappeared from their lives. Franny’s plan goes awry, however, and she returns to inadvertently witness Sally’s desperate attempt to reawaken her husband’s affection.
Dolly’s scheme fares better, but only raises scorn from Franny, who hides her neediness behind a snide and petulant exterior. Indeed, by midway through the play everyone but Grandma seems to be speaking in a tone of strangled tenseness suggesting acres of suppressed emotion. This is not easy to tolerate for long stretches: Listening to each actor take a turn at stammering out chitchat or reveries or bitter retorts fraught with unspoken feeling gets a bit enervating.
Sally shrilly nags at Phil, then switches her aim to Franny when she notices that their roughhousing is a little too enthusiastic (good thing she didn’t hear them bonding over a mutual worship of J.D. Salinger). Franny bitches at Dolly, dismissing her earnest avowal of their mother’s desire to re-establish a relationship. A fumbling sexual interlude between Franny and Phil brings the play to its poignant anticlimax.
The performances are meticulously crafted — there’s much rather fussily low-key acting going on — but the characters still come off as oddly unappealing. Woods’ tremulous emotionalism is particularly wearisome; she is unable to take the edge off the character’s almost relentless sourness and make us sympathetic to the agony that gives rise to it. Moss and Cameron-Scorsese are effectively pouty and whiny, respectively, as the teens. Widdoes is better at delivering grandmotherly concern than Nelson’s moist narration, which insists on lyrically describing the significance of the events before us. (This also requires Widdoes to awkwardly switch from character to narrator, at one point shutting a door behind her to exit a scene and then opening it a second later to re-enter and explain it all for us.)
The play is effective at establishing an atmosphere of thwarted desire, as each of its young characters searches in some confusion for succor in the suffocating atmosphere of Sally and Phil’s tiny apartment. But it’s surprisingly easy to observe the deftly sketched layers of sexual tension and emotional frustration with an analytical eye. The production works hard for low-key poignance, but that emotion can prove elusive when it is so diligently bidden.