New Georges’ production of “Stretch (a fantasia)” just oozes style. Playwright (and New Georges a.d.) Susan Bernfield turns the last days of Rose Mary Woods, Nixon’s personal secretary, into a buffet of dream sequences, brassy comedy and occasional appearances by a five-piece band, and thanks to Emma Griffin’s direction, the pieces come together with pizzazz.
High marks go to the entire design team, who make clear sense out of constant transitions between the past, the present and the imaginary.
Costumer Jessica Trejos wraps Woods (Kristin Griffith) in a pale purple skirt and matching, mod-print blouse that seems fun and fashionable for the Nixon years and saucily retro for the present-day scenes, when Woods is in a nursing home. Sound designer Jessica Paz creates a vivid template with microphones: When Woods slides into the past, where she talks to us directly, there’s a faint echo to her voice, and when she’s wandering through a dream sequence, her words boom.
Set designer Jo Winiarski also has fun with sound, hiding the onstage band behind a sumptuous red curtain. When the musicians are revealed during Woods’ dreams, there’s always a thrill of discovery.
However, Winiarski’s set also hints at the play’s superficial thinking. The playing space is covered with tacky nursing home carpet, and stage left there are two doors that lead to nursing home bedrooms. But center stage, a sunken pit holds the living room of Woods’ orderly (Brian Gerard Murray) and his stoner friend (Eric Clem). In between Woods’ flashbacks and her fiery confrontations with fellow senior citizen Bob (Evan Thompson), the kids smoke bongs, watch TV and talk about absolutely nothing. Just as their room is dwarfed by the “grown-up world,” the young guys are rendered flat and cartoonish by the older characters.
Ultimately, Bernfield delivers a reductive moral: Kids today have been numbed into apathy by videogames, Spongebob and the belief that politicians will lie, no matter what. But if they only listen to their elders, the whippersnappers will start engaging with America.
Almost every plot point supports this rose-colored statement, from Bob’s monologue about being a teacher who cared more than his students, to the fact that the orderly and his “bud” are so generic they don’t even have names. They’re just part of the archetypal Young Generation that the play mocks, scolds and then redeems.
Bernfield tries to interweave this argument with Woods’ history, but the connections are tenuous. For instance, Woods talks in her sleep, which inspires the orderly because he never dreams. But it’s a cheat simply to laud the act of dreaming. By celebrating Woods’ convictions while scarcely confronting their consequences, Bernfield makes things too easy.
Griffith, at least, gives a fantastic, coherent performance. She stalks the stage like a film noir vamp, commanding admiration with her intelligence and attitude. Like the designers, she turns a wobbly play into excellent entertainment.