A bountiful marriage of the page and portrayal, “Intimate Apparel” is as perfect at the Mark Taper Forum as it apparently was in New York, where it won the top prize from three major critics groups this past season. Lynn Nottage’s note-perfect play about an illiterate seamstress in 1905 New York benefits from beautifully articulated characterizations, particularly that of Viola Davis in the lead role, who floods the Taper with captivating naivete and a visceral craving for love that taps the universal heart.
Nottage’s play, straight-forward and even old-fashioned in its construction, poses a fair number of questions about hope, fairness, tradition and finding one’s calling, and doesn’t attempt to answer any of them. That’s quite all right, as the asking — the expression of emotion — has more value than resolution.
Esther (Davis) wants more than her seamstress world offers; “Intimate Apparel” chronicles the dawn of her attempt to break out of her boarding house room and away from the Singer that keeps her employed.
Esther has turned 35 and she is once again designing and sewing a wedding dress for one of her housemates. Her landlady, Mrs. Dickson (Lynda Gravatt), is keen on introducing her to single men yet none meets Esther’s standards. Demure for the most part, Esther has fiery and curt reactions when told to go in a direction she has not chosen, and the odds of her ending up with a local are slim and none.
Tucked into her quilt are 18 years’ savings that Esther hopes to use to finance a beauty parlor. That would be her dream realized; marriage is pretty much out of the question.
Her seamstress duties take her to the home of Mrs. Van Buren (Arija Bareikis), an aristocrat stuck in a loveless marriage, bored with her own life but thrilled to live vicariously through Esther after the seamstress receives a letter from a construction worker digging the Panama Canal.
George (Russell Hornsby), from Barbados, uses the written word to sway Esther into falling in love; though they have never met, their frequent correspondence generates a comfort zone that leads to marriage.
Through it all, Esther confides in only two people: prostitute Mayme (Lauren Velez) and fabric importer Mr. Marks (Corey Stoll). Mayme is the weathered voice of reason. Marks is escape and reality rolled into one: He brings her into the land of the exotic, whether it’s Japanese silk or the explanation of a Jewish ritual — the two value each other’s demeanor and expertise.
Marks is her soulmate, the one person who connects with the most fully developed part of Esther’s character. Stoll and Davis share an electric chemistry that in other hands might feel purely sexual, but their kinship is only flavored with forbidden fruit. The actors assume a cluelessness about their mutual attraction that’s beguiling to watch — their scenes together generate the fewest fireworks but the most heat.
As Esther tries to please her new husband, her world begins to crumble. Certainly, the farther away from the sewing machine she goes, the tougher her circumstances become and she’s torn whether to retreat. She’s betrayed and confused by the members of her circle and finally she sees nowhere to go but back to where she feels whole again.
Second act is uncompromising in its series of letdowns and each of the glorious perfs in the first act set up the failings in the second to a T.
Hornsby makes George convincingly honorable in the early going and turns him into a different man — fully explained — in the second. Velez’s and Bareikis’ characters are two ships passing in opposite emotional directions. Nottage’s script demands nuance from both as their characters change — and the actresses deliver.
Director Daniel Sullivan enhances the grace of Nottage’s words, gently moving the actors in and out of a boudoir, a bordello and the bottom of the Panama Canal. He keeps the tone light and hopeful in the first act and sullen in the second; the action slows as it would in real life, when disillusionment and disappointment set in.
Derek McLane’s set, a marvel of simplicity, is bare save for simple definers of a location — a sewing machine, a bed, an upright piano, shelves with bolts of fabric. (On the night reviewed, a mechanical floor stuck in an open position, halting the action early in the first act. Center Theater Group’s Gordon Davidson kept the aud entertained with some shtick for 12 minutes while the crews got the set operating.)
The Taper has recently presented plays pedantic in their approach toward increasing the audience’s awareness of their personal wealth and social standing. “Intimate Apparel,” though less direct than “Nickel and Dimed” and “Living Out,” has none of those ambitions and yet it strikes much harder than the other two.
“Intimate” strikes the heart with notions about love and companionship and wanting someone to hold, those ultimate base needs that truly “wealthy” people enjoy. It will give many a theatergoer a reason to count their lucky stars on their way to the parking garage.