Brooklyn Laundry review – John Patrick Shanley’s sudsy drama is a washout

<span>David Zayas and Cecily Strong in Brooklyn Laundry.</span><span>Photograph: Jeremy Daniel</span>
David Zayas and Cecily Strong in Brooklyn Laundry.Photograph: Jeremy Daniel
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It’s hard to discern a higher meaning from John Patrick Shanley’s latest play, Brooklyn Laundry. Is it a play about the precariousness of human connection? A lesson on the sacrifices women make?

Any intelligible destination is unclear as the play languishes under a vagueness. Shanley uses a cascade of circumstances – terminal illness, the burden of caretaking – to counterfeit emotional response. Instead of crafting specific female characters, Shanley, who writes and directs, introduces an onslaught of unhappiness that goes nowhere and is seemingly only curable by men.

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Brooklyn Laundry opens in a New York City laundromat. Owner Owen (a charming David Zayas) strikes up a connection with Fran (Cecily Strong), a semi-regular customer with a “gloomy” disposition. But Fran’s gloom isn’t without reason; she is a caretaker for an ill relative. Her life has largely sputtered into a malaise of “what ifs” and “have nots”. “All I have is a history of guilt and bullshit. [And] a studio apartment,” Fran laments.

Owen has his own baggage – a fiance who “ghosted” him due to impetus. Both fragile, Owen and Fran cosmically find each other, booming and busting throughout the play’s duration.

Shanley has said his own trips to a local laundromat served as the play’s fodder. But Brooklyn Laundry is startlingly two-dimensional. It doesn’t work as a charming boy-gets-girl romance. Two-hander scenes between Owen and Fran lack intimacy, with the subtle dance of courtship and flirtation overwhelmingly absent within Shanley’s direction.

Strong, and Zayas especially, attempt to create chemistry. But there is no logic to what attracts Owen to Fran and vice versa. While the play’s opening scene shows the couple engaged in banter, their subsequent first date doesn’t flesh out their supposed connection.

Shanley’s dialogue is lovely, at times, and humorous (Fran and Owen take shrooms during their dinner). When Owen finds a bag of Fran’s long-lost laundry, there is a magic to the moment, buttressed by Zayas’s charisma. But the dialogue overall lacks a depth and subtext, careening into hypotheses on the human condition. “We’re coming and going like like basketball … Why shouldn’t we just, you know, enjoy the game?” Fran muses.

Besides, any romantic buildup in the play’s opening is largely dissolved as Brooklyn Laundry expands on Fran’s domestic situation. We see her tend to her ailing sister Trish (played by Florencia Lozano) in an antiseptic Pennsylvania trailer. Two scenes later, Fran is told of another relative’s terminal illness and shouldered with raising multiple soon-to-be orphaned children. The whiplash is overwhelming, with Strong sometimes struggling to find honesty given her character’s constant reactivity.

Ultimately, Strong, Lozano, and Andrea Syglowski (who plays Fran’s other sister Susie) are ornamental and underused in Shanley’s world despite possessing the range to do more (Syglowski brings an incisive humor and emotion to her spare scene). An avalanche of things happen to them. The men in their lives – whether that be off-stage husbands or Owen – treat them as disposable. But Shanley does too, providing little opportunity for any of them to tap into personhood.

It’s an insensitive treatment of the women in the play, made even worse by Shanley’s insistence that Fran’s happiness lies in Owen, a man she barely knows. Despite having dated for a few months, Fran is ready to invest everything into her newfound relationship. In return, Owen is angry and abrasive, claiming Fran “ghosted” him…after she doesn’t text back after the literal death of her loved one. “You ghosted me. I didn’t hear from you for 10 days,” Owen pouts.

It’s bizarre that Owen’s feelings and strange attachment are even entertained amid Fran’s family emergency. Stunning to think that Fran would be receptive to Owen’s particular brand of narcissism and manipulation.

Unfortunately, Shanley doesn’t offer more for Fran to do or feel. She listens, she responds, indulging in a staunch placation that is given little justification. Fran’s response and the supposed happy ending of their relationship feels more like a man’s fantasy than anything gripped in honesty. “I’m nothing but real,” Fran tells Own during their play’s final encounter. “No pretty lights.”

If only that were true.