What is David Cale’s Sandra (Vineyard Theatre, to Dec 11) really about? It seems to be half soapy mystery, and half Shirley Valentine-ish vacation personal liberation tale. The story is high on melodrama (disappearance, hot sex, secret identities), and frustratingly detailed on some things and less so on others. However, it is beautifully told by Marjan Neshat, one of the stars of one of this critic’s favorite plays of the year, English. Here, as in that production, Neshat has an innate warmth and authority.
In Sandra, directed by Leigh Silverman, the title character is trying to find a gay best friend who has gone missing. Ethan was last seen in the Mexican gay vacation idyll of Puerto Vallarta, and so it is off there she goes, Neshat impersonating the people she meets along the way—who may or may not aid her in her search. Just as in Cale’s previous high-profile stage monologue, Harry Clarke performed by Billy Crudup, stage adornment (design is by Rachel Hauk) is minimal. Neshat, like Crudup, sits on a chair to address the audience, Neshat enclosed by two partitions with window cutouts. Thom Weaver’s lighting is clever and transporting when it comes to locales.
Ethan’s disappearance is the galvanizing puzzle of the play, but it is oddly de-centered from what we hear about. Sandra’s adventure takes in a hot Italian stranger, who seduces her. She has just separated from her husband, and to be courted by this incredibly sexy, swimmer-bodied hunk is a delicious entrée to a possible future. In one of the play’s most beautiful scenes, the chair is re-imagined as a bed, in which the couple are curled up together.
But Mr. Hot Stuff is not all he seems, and soon Sandra is dealing with a snowballing set of thriller complexities—a fire destroys her business, there are threatening phone calls, and still the mystery of what happened to Ethan. For this critic—thinking about the very real harm done to LGBTQ people out in the world, as seen brutally this very day at Club Q in Colorado Springs—the play is weirdly unconcerned with Ethan, and what really happened to him. His life, his loves, his desires, are sidelined. Plot spoilers will go unrevealed here, but the final twist in the play is super-irritating and structurally undermining, eliciting the thought of “Why couldn’t she have done this before?”
However, our audience was agog throughout, tangibly invested in what happened next. Neshat navigates both her character and the audience through the play’s spiraling complications as Sandra nears solving the mystery of Ethan, which goes on to change her life in every way. The plot of the story is scrappily executed, but its quieter moments of reflection—particularly around its central theme of disappearance and identity—are piercing; and Neshat is the best pilot, keeping everything in the air and guaranteeing a smooth landing.
Evanston Salt Costs Climbing
In Will Arbery’s play Evanston Salt Costs Climbing (New Group/Signature to Dec 18), four people try, in vain, to ward off—in no particular order—the end of the world, insanity, grief, the value of work, and nervous breakdowns. Peter (Jeb Kreager) and Basil (Ken Leung) drive a salt truck that handles the worst that Illinois winters can throw onto the streets, Maiworm (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) is the middle-aged assistant director of public works finally receiving public recognition for her job, and her daughter Jane Jr. (Rachel Sachnoff) goes very deep very quickly with whoever she is around.
Jane Jr. also seems lonely, scared, and in need of even more tender loving care than the wonderful Maiworm—now newly excited about a new way to heat pavements, and so do away with expensive salt-spreaders—seems capable of supplying. Fresh from her starring role at the Shed’s Straight Line Crazy, the character of scourge-of-brutalist-urban-planning-icon Jane Jacobs returns—here played by Leung—as an impatient spirit, looking on dimly at events.
Arbery’s play, directed with a playful pop by Danya Taymor, is about personal tragedies, as well as the much bigger one heading for the world thanks to our own neglect. It’s also about death, and people struggling to grieve and move forward. It’s about a secret affair. Characters speak bluntly and plainly to one another. There is a lot of swearing. Big plot developments are hilariously rushed away. There is a lady in a big hat, a kind of in-house specter, who presages yet more strangeness.
There are a few plays right now in which exquisite performances deliver a play fresh to the audience. Here, the quartet of performers burrow deep into the absurdities and intensity of Arbery’s words. The result is a fascinating, surreal, and yet also very real, exploration of fragile lives.