Richard & Jane & Dick & Sally, playing at Baltimore’s Center Stage through March 1, feels oddly familiar in several ways, and in others, 100 percent fresh. Playwright Noah Diaz delicately dances on the line between hammering the obvious and underwritten obscurity.
The tagline “a play about family and other injustices” is perhaps tantalizing, perhaps irritating, but understanding family as inherently “unjust” is crucial to our comprehension of the events that unfold onstage over the course of the uninterrupted 90-minute show. The family we join (or spy upon, I can’t decide) is very nearly universal despite some extremely specific circumstances, and the tension between these is the fulcrum on which the action is poised.
If we can indeed say “action” as such. This show is chock-a-block with themes, meanings, metaphors, coping mechanisms, defenses, old wounds and unspoken understandings, but I’m not sure I can identify an actual plot. As far as beginning, middle and end of a story arc, I am also unsure. But I am perfectly ok with that. This production plays it fast and loose with timeframe as well. “When,” “How long” and other such temporal questions seem to beg the answer, which is a frequent refrain of several characters, “Does it matter?”
I think of Tolstoy’s quote about families from Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” which may explain why the works of Tennessee Williams remain so popular. I am also reminded of Robert Frost’s line in “The Death Of The Hired Man” – “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, /They have to take you in.” Both quotes apply in this production, once again pulling at each other to create a disturbing tension.
Diaz packs a lot of punch into an hour and a half, exploring relationships we have with people who are present, those who are absent as well as those who are not, technically, people. It also explores the complexity of interfamilial relationships, and how the dynamics influence one another. It’s easily as full of unseen stuff as the clever set.
Set Designer Stephanie Osin Cohen creates a fascinating terraced dollhouse set that gives the impression of being pared down, while functionally containing not only a lot of rich detail, but also hidey holes with props for the cast to discover or stash as the occasion warrants.
Sound Designer/Composer Frederick Kennedy crafts a soundscape that’s rich, demonstrative and also ironic. The musical accompaniment to the montage sequences is unsettling, in that it’s fun and upbeat but also irritating and creepy, which is probably deliberate, so kudos for that.
The show’s graphic artwork by Baltimore-based collage artist Mirlande Jean-Giles is also unsettling. I saw the graphic, used as this production’s logo, before the show and if you’d asked, I would have said, “yellow, house, circle,” which isn’t wrong, precisely. It is only after having seen the show that I unpack how evocative and complex the image is after all: deceptively illustrative, masquerading as simplistically primitive.
The company of actors and production staff is mostly out of New York, which is where this show will be produced next. Deftly directed by Taylor Reynolds, also out of New York City, the show moves at a brisk pace and contains montage-type sequences that further accelerate the piece, almost – but never quite – spiraling into chaos, performed in the multi-leveled house with the effect of a three-ring circus in that it’s impossible to pay close enough attention to catch everything that’s happening.
The inclusive cast is clearly comfortable together in imitations of familial intimacy. Neimah Djourabchi as Richard creates an unsympathetic overachiever strength of presence, which is then torn apart by his circumstances. Richard spends the duration attempting to assert control. Playing Jane, Michelle Beck exudes distance, boundaries and a disinclination toward entanglements, which are also deconstructed, and she occupies herself dodging commitment.
Jay Cobián, in the role of Dick, Jr., struggles to connect, whereas the amazing Treshelle Edmond, playing Sally, makes a choice towards self-determination. Noah Averbach-Katz plays Spot, who only wants to belong, to such wonderful effect that he threatens to steal the show, then generously does not do it. Vanessa Kai as Mother is luminous and haunting.
Costume Designer Alicia Austin creates distinctive looks for the characters that are wonderful and supportive rather than distracting, with the exception of That Dress, oh, you’ll know it. It’s simply stunning and deserves its own round of applause.
The birth of a new play is often fascinating but awkward, embarrassing and uncomfortable. R&J&D&S ticks all those boxes, and transports us into the quotidian miseries of a family at war with itself. I recommend it.
Run Time: 90 minutes , no intermission.