Edward Albee seemed to have shattered the last social taboo with “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?”, his absurdist drama about a happily married man who discovers an even greater happiness in bestiality. Naomi Wallace’s new play, “Night Is a Room,” which feels a lot like ersatz Albee, also demolishes a sexual taboo — but without Albee’s stinging language or his biting cerebral assault on the moral standards of our smugly liberal society.
The production values of “Night Is a Room,” now playing at Off Broadway’s Signature Theater, are exceptionally fine under the detail-minded direction of Bill Rauch. Rachel Hauck’s spare but expressive sets, in particular, define the yawning class abyss between two competitive female forces, the wife and the mother of a middle-aged classics teacher named Marcus (Bill Heck).
Marcus and his fashionable wife, Liana (Dagmara Dominczyk), live in understated upper-middle-class elegance, while dowdy Dore (Ann Dowd), the birth mother he’s never met, inhabits a shabby garden flat that hasn’t been updated since the 1970s. Clint Ramos’ distinctive costumes underscore these social differences, which Liana hopes to bridge by arranging a mother-son reunion as a surprise 40th birthday gift for her husband.
We never learn how this reunion went, because the playwright hasn’t written that scene. But three months later, Marcus and his mother are on extremely friendly terms — so chummy, in fact, that Liana feels neglected.
Like Albee, Wallace harks back to Greek tragedy for her theme. But unlike the master of modern Expressionism, she overlooks the vengeful Maenads who force the Oedipal hero to confront and make reparation for the tragic consequences of his actions. The only Fury here is Liana, and she’s no match for the relentless Fates.
But enough of the classical references. The actors aren’t playing mythic figures, but flesh-and-blood characters. Heck (a Signature player in “The Orphans’ Home Cycle” and “Angels in America”) is properly sheepish as a man who loves the attention of women (his mother, his wife, his adoring students), but knows he isn’t really worth all the fuss. Dominczyk (“Golden Boy”) is all fire and ice as his “sad, beautiful wife.” And then there’s Ann Dowd (“Compliance” and HBO’s “The Leftovers”), whose remarkable performance transforms Dore from a lost soul into a woman who discovers and relishes her identity.
Wallace writes with a kind of ecstatic lyricism, a love song to the sound of her own poetic voice. But while the individual images can be beautiful, the age-old conflict between mother and wife is reduced to a single blunt and literal metaphor.