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Theater Review (NYC): Ecstasy by Mike Leigh

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While the epidemic of straightforward revivals off-off-Broadway is potentially a much bigger threat to the vibrancy of New York theater than any closing on Broadway, it’s hard to think of a more perfect, timely play to revive than Mike Leigh’s Ecstasy, now playing in the Red Room in a superb production by the Black Door Theatre Company. In 1979, while the kids were spiking their hair and listening to the Clash, the 30-somethings were just doing their best not to get caught up in the chaos bearing down on Thatcher’s England. The real victims of the era were the working classes, a group that includes every character in Ecstasy, who spend the entire play trying not to think about the doom that’s about to hit them.

The sociopolitical significance of these characters' lives is undeniable, but save for one painful-to-hear discussion of immigration, the vulnerability is kept on a personal level. Whether it's the unhealthy relationship of naked lovers Jean and Roy in the opening scene (a relationship which, at its boiling point, nearly results in a rape), the obvious but repressed unhappiness in the marriage of Jean’s only real friends Mick and Dawn, or the impossibility of a rekindled relationship between Jean and old friend Len, no one is getting out of this play happy. But almost none of the dialog directly refers to this desperation. Because of the characters' deep but glaring repression, Ecstasy requires an excellent cast — and an even better director — to nail the social dynamics and mannerisms of characters who are very rarely sober, and though almost always forlorn can still force out a laugh whenever they can get it.

Mike Leigh EcstasyDespite inconsistent accents and a limited set, director Sara Laudonia works miracles from her cast; there are more than a few moments when the audience is just as ready to weep as the characters. The two female leads are the cast's two standouts, and provide the most distinct contrast in ways of dealing with emotional pain.

Gina LeMoine’s Dawn, married to brutish Irishman Mick (Brandon McCluskey), tries in vain to pretend she’s still 20, remaining the boisterous life of the party against all sense of reason. LeMoine lets brief moments of pain sear across all her dignified perkiness, and it’s those sparse moments that brand the memory harder than over 90 minutes' worth of Dawn supposedly enjoying herself.

Mike Leigh EcstasyUnlike Dawn with her insufficient perkiness, Jean is a character whose utter despair is behind every emotion, just waiting to break out. Mary Monahan never once lets the sorrowful look in her eyes dissipate. This makes her ultimate confession of unhappiness to Len the inevitable result of everything we’ve seen on stage.

In terms of direction, Laudonia does a fantastic job navigating the play's emotional waves. There is rarely an off-moment. The inconsistency in the accents never detracts from the emotion of what is being said. Given a mostly American cast in a Cockney-sounding play, Laudonia was smart to put the emphasis on emotional substance over style, and only dialect nitpickers will object. The small space of the Red Room is also used to its fullest capacity by set designer Damon Pelletier; anyone who's ever lived in a crappy studio apartment knows just what they’re seeing.

The studio apartment set and the emotional turmoil of a politically unstable time are just some of the more obvious indicators of the play's current significance. That these characters seem so alive to us is more to the point of how every young person must eventually realize that they’re not so young anymore. Youth has a peak, and when the point of passing that peak comes at a turbulent time, it’s virtually impossible to recover. Whether it’s 1979 London, 1917 St. Petersburg, or 2009 Brooklyn, the anger and hopelessness remain essentially the same. Leigh has explored sociopolitics through personal interactions throughout his career, and Ecstasy, one of his few plays, may have nailed this particular dynamic better than anyone. This a truly ingenious choice for a revival, and one of the few that could cover contemporary circumstances better even than any new play.


Ecstasy by Mike Leigh; directed by Sara Laudonia; set design by Damon Pelletier; sound design by Christopher Rummel; lighting design by Paul Howle. Photos by Cedar.

Starring Mary Monahan (Jean), Gine LeMoine (Dawn), Stephen Heskett (Len), Brandon McCluskey (Mick), Josh Marcantel (Roy), and Lore Davis (Val).

Ecstasy runs through January 25 at the Red Room, 85 East 4th St. Tickets can be purchased at www.horseTRADE.info.

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About Ethan Stanislawski