Set, Jill Weiss, Alex Kube; lighting, Daryl Marcheson. Opened Aug. 8, 1996; reviewed Aug. 17; runs until Sept. 14. Running time: 1 hour, 30 min. Cast: Leanne Griffin (Rhonda), Sharon Saks (Billie), Jennifer Zivolich (Judy), John D. Heffron (Bob), Derek Webster (Duke).
John Patrick Shanley is established as a screenwriter and playwright. But his 1986 play, “Women of Manhattan,” is a lesser effort. Except for one transcendent scene, this tedious staging by Women in L.A. Prods. does nothing to bolster his or the play’s credentials. Covering one week in the lives of three lovely, yet anguished, young ladies of Gotham, Shanley quickly lays bare their individual neuroses in the opening scene as these best friends gather at Rhonda’s (Leanne Griffin) apartment for an evening of soul-searching. He then proceeds to filter an ocean of dialogue through their mouths, reducing their angst to babble.
For some unfathomable reason, director John Schmidt underscores the play’s basic weakness by keeping the actors as physically static as possible as they prattle on about the voids in their own and each other’s existence. Griffin offers a pleasant Southern belle persona as Rhonda, but never ventures very far in communicating her heartbreak at having been dumped by her former live-in boyfriend. Rhonda speaks reams about her feelings of loss and the significance of not throwing away his left-behind gym shoes, but it comes across as just so much passionless rhetoric.
Sharon Saks is much more animated as Billie, the somewhat happily married young matron who still has a taste for an occasional dalliance. For all her energetic discourse, however, Saks never seems to be talking to the actors in front of her. She often projects Billie’s ramblings about marital frustrations and unrequited passions as a speech rather than conversation. The second scene centers on Billie’s husband Bob (John D. Heffron) and his desire to put aside his yuppie worries and “be in the moment.” Heffron’s almost trance-like interpretation of Bob’s midlife crisis seems meant for a completely different play. He never appears to even recognize, let alone connect with, anything being said by Saks, the only other person on stage with him.
There is something almost mystical that occurs in the presentation of the sexually frustrated Judy as performed by Jennifer Zivolich. In the first and fourth scenes (performing with Sax and Griffin), Zivolich is low-keyed and understated almost to the point of non-existence. There is nothing emanating from her that would warrant Billie and Rhonda’s description of Judy as a woman whose personality is so strong she scares away heterosexual men. In the third scene, theatrical magic happens. In a blind date set up by Billie, Judy meets Billie’s ex-lover, Duke (Derek Webster), a gorgeous black man who “speaks like Robert Wagner.” Over glasses of red wine, a level of sexual tension builds between Zivolich and Webster that actually pulsates.
They don’t simply talk to one another, they bore holes through each other’s souls. Webster exudes a magnificent masculine presence and his Duke simply engulfs Judy. When Zivolich is with him, her beauty and personality are so electric, it is absolutely believable when Duke says upon first meeting her, “You took my breath away.” Julio Martinez