Wild and Wise Women Rule
December 7, 2023, 8:09.39 pm ET
Photo: Danny and the Deep Blue Sea/Emilio Madrid
By Brian Scott Lipton
Anyone who says there are no great roles for actresses anymore clearly isn’t visiting Off-Broadway. From the fabulous Dianne Wiest in “Scene Partners” to the ever-intriguing Marin Ireland in “Spain,” the glorious Rachel Bay Jones and Micaela Diamond in “Here We Are,” and the incredible Maleah Joi Moon, Shoshana Bean and Kecia Lewis in “Hell’s Kitchen,” the Off-Broadway boards are bursting with female talent.
And these ladies are just the tip of the iceberg. Making her much-heralded stage debut in the revival of John Patrick Shanley’s often-shattering two-hander “Danny and the Deep Blue Sea,” now at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, White Lotus” star Aubrey Plaza, proves she has more-than-enough theatrical chops to handle the challenging role of the emotionally troubled Roberta.
A survivor of sexual abuse and a way-too-young marriage (and motherhood) who is hard on herself – and everyone else in her life -- Plaza’s Roberta is all exposed nerve endings. No wonder, she becomes the perfect match for the equally tough-but-tender Danny (a truly brilliant Christopher Abbott), whom she meets in a Bronx bar. It’s a riveting performance without a touch of vanity – and hopefully not the last time we see Plaza on stage.
Photo: Madwomen of the West/Carol Rosegg
Admittedly, Sandra Tsing Loh’s “Madwomen of the West,” now at the Actors Temple Theatre, is not really a play in any structural sense of the word; it’s more like a barely blended mélange of one-liners, mini-TED talks, trenchant monologues, and idle chit-chat (which is fitting, perhaps, since it’s set at a fictional birthday brunch). But it also unquestionably speaks to what’s on many women’s minds – especially those ladies “of a certain age” – including the challenges of raising kids in the age of proper pronouns, the continuing relevance (or not) of Gloria Steinem, the dangers of a long marriage (adultery, alcoholism and boredom), the upside and downside of menopause, and what would really have happened to Mary Richards after age 35.
More importantly, it provides a superb showcase for four actresses we don’t see enough of on stage (and whose characters have been based, in part, on their real-life personality): the amazingly gorgeous Marilu Henner as chipper, ultra-positive wellness guru Zoey; the brilliantly brittle Caroline Aaron as the sharp-tongued school administrator Marilyn; the wonderfully martini-dry Brooke Adams as the seemingly put-together but lost-at-sea ex-lawyer Jules; and the often deadpan Melanie Mayron as the once-renowned artist Claudia, now a Debbie Downer in flannel pajamas (whoops -- it’s a surprise party) whose life ends up looking up! It is a mad, mad, mad, mad world.
Photo: Manahatta/Joan Marcus
Trouble also eventually enters the seemingly charmed life of Jane Snake – well-played by Elizabeth Frances – in Mary Kathryn Nagle’s ambitious new play “Manahatta,” now at the Public Theatre. The first native American woman to land a job in Wall Street (Lehman Brothers in a bit of foreshadowing), Jane struggles (for a while, anyways) to make it in the cutthroat world of big business, further distancing herself from her struggling family, as well as her ancestry as part of Manhattan’s original Lenape tribe, in the process.
The piece toggles – and often wobbles – between 17th-century New York (where Frances plays a smart Lenape woman named Le-le-wa), Lehman Brothers in the early 2000s, and Oklahoma. That’s where her stubborn mother, Bobbie (a commanding Sheila Tousey) has mortgaged the family’s longtime home to pay off her late husband’s medical debt -- without telling Jane or her dour sister, Debra, (nicely portrayed by Rainbow Dickerson).
Personally, I think Nagle works a bit too hard to connect the dots, even if I get her overarching point that white people have always been motivated by greed, injuring minorities in the process. But any woman who has tried to touch -- never mind break -- the glass ceiling will see her reflection in Jane!