Yet Deborah isn't the "ideal" woman either; she and John role-play, squabble, and hurt each other (figuratively and literally). Ms. Wasche is remarkably effective in this semi-defined role, squeezing concentrated emotion out of disconnected scenes. In fact, throughout the play, that sense of disconnection makes the sudden moments of shock or violence or pain all the more effective because of their unexpectedness.
Ultimately the play isn't a puzzle to be figured out, but a sharply drawn distillation of the complicated lives of people who could be any of us, presented in a (literally) harsh light we're not used to. John lays out the conflicted decision-making couples have to make: "One day you're certain. And things click…it's easy to decide which door to walk through because you both like the hallway, you like where it seems to lead. But eventually it ends in a new room. With new doors. And new hallways. And you fight over which door you're going to walk through, because the hallways go to very different places." Anyone who's been in a marriage could recognize this, though few could put it so well as one of Anna Moench's characters.
The original Pillow Book consisted of the musings and observations of a lady of the Japanese royal court of a thousand years ago. Though written for personal reasons it became a literary classic (and, much later, a strange Peter Greenaway film). The episodic and seemingly haphazard structure of this play, with its skipping around and its interludes of lists not directly related to the story ("Things I don't want to do," "Things that prove disillusioning," "Words that sound like the heart feels"), fits right into this tradition. The reference is also made literal by the plain white pillows that serve as props and furniture.
Under the intensely thoughtful direction of David F. Chapman, and backed up by Maruti's lighting and evocative sound and music by Darren Morze and Michael Wall, the agile cast turns the long but lean script into a tour de force of attention-grabbing. As a one-act it pushes the limits; I don't think a brief intermission would have diluted the scenes' cumulative power, but that's just a guess. It's a powerful new work regardless, well worth seeing – and getting a bit perplexed about.
The Pillow Book runs at 59E59 Theaters in New York through Aug. 20.