That guiltiest of guilty-pleasure genres, the women’s-prison potboiler, is making a minor stage comeback at Manhattan Theater Club. Granted, fans of the formula may find Rona Munro’s “Iron” to be lacking in some fundamentals. The guards are only mildly sadistic, favoring sly mockery instead of more overt forms of brutality. There’s a disappointing lack of lesbian innuendo, to say nothing of activity. Violence is kept to a minimum, too, and trafficking in illicit substances plays only a minor role in the plot.
But beggars can’t be choosers, right? Some of us still pine for that camp Aussie soap “Prisoner: Cell Block H,” a staple of latenight TV a couple of decades back. And Munro’s relatively sober play, about a young woman rekindling a relationship with her mother through the bars of a prison cell, doesn’t sidestep melodrama entirely. It manufactures as much suspense as possible by withholding the details of the murder that put mama in the slammer until the last minutes. And it concludes with a classic chestnut from sob-sister pictures, a loving mother sacrificing her own small sliver of happiness for her child’s benefit.
Fay (Lisa Emery) has not seen Josie (Jennifer Dundas) in 15 years when the latter shows up in the visiting room one day. In fact Fay, who killed Josie’s dad when the girl was just 10, apparently hasn’t had any visitors, and she’s a bit rusty when it comes to social intercourse. Her opening conversational gambit is a recounting of the attempted suicide of the “annoying cow” in the cell next door. She’s none too subtle about her desire for a supply of cigarettes, either.
But Josie, who was raised by her paternal grandmother, perseveres in her attempt to break through Fay’s hardness and suspicion, which occasionally falter to reveal a desperate longing for a connection with the daughter she never expected to see again. The traumatized Josie had lost almost all memory of the first decade of her life, and wants her mom to help her recover it.
Scenes in which mother and daughter try to find some common ground in their divergent lives — Josie has grown up to be an accomplished workaholic — are alternated with encounters between Fay and the two guards who are forever stalking the perimeter of Mark Wendland’s striking metallic set. (Their omnipresent wanderings are a somewhat heavy-handed touch in the otherwise clean-lined staging from director Anna D. Shapiro.) The female guard (Susan Pourfar), who has a bit of a grudge against Fay, warns Josie not to get burned by her mother’s manipulative ways. It does seem that Fay takes a slightly vampirish interest in jumpstarting her daughter’s sex life.
Incidentally — or rather, not so incidentally — the prison in question is in the U.K. Munro is a Scottish-born playwright with an Evening Standard Award to her name. The actresses in this production are American, and the attendant problems of accent add a thin layer of artifice to the proceedings that mutes the play’s effectiveness as a gritty, realistic examination of this chilly milieu.
Although she vividly conjures the frayed emotional state of a woman embittered by years of casually dehumanizing treatment in prison, Emery struggles to the end with the flat vowels and clipped consonants of a lower-middle-class British accent. Despite that handicap, she brings a haunting matter-of-factness to Fay’s recounting of her crime. These passages, among the play’s finest, shed a harsh light on the manner in which a single act of violence can erupt out of, and destroy, a woman’s otherwise unremarkable passage through life.
Dundas’ accent is far more assured, but it’s also disconcertingly posh; we’re left to guess how her father’s death and her mother’s incarceration could manage to catapult a young girl into a superior stratum of society. That oddity aside, Dundas’ performance has an appealing clarity and simplicity.
But eventually both actresses must struggle with some implausible developments in their characters’ relationship. Josie decides to give up her job and devote herself to freeing her mother. Fay appears to be of two minds about this. One minute she’s giving a long, rather too artful speech about all the pleasures she’d love to savor in the outside world (“I want to eat hot chips out of paper! I want a proper drink! I want to kiss a man with a moustache!”). A few lines later she is violently resistant, moaning that Josie’s efforts will only bring her “paperwork and memories that’d make my head bleed.”
And there’s no avoiding the stagy quality of the play’s climactic scene, in which Fay goads Josie into a sudden “recovery” of her memory of her father’s death, and mother and daughter come distressingly close to having a catfight. Of course, this is also one of the play’s livelier moments. It’s the only time “Iron” approaches the irresistible vulgarity of the classic chicks-behind-bars pictures like “Caged,” to which its blunt title seems almost a sort of unconscious homage.