The Management is an adventurous downtown company good at tapping into the zeitgeist, whether it’s the perils of growing up gay in the Midwest (in Joshua Conkel’s MilkMilkLemonade) or the terrors of women’s sex lives (Dorothy Fortenberry’s Caitlin and the Swan). Magic realism, especially in the form of talking animals, also crops up again and again, as do zippy dance numbers. Conkel’s new play, co-written with Megan Hill, is no exception on any of these scores.
In Lonesome Winter Conkel has a flashy blast playing Sparkles the Cat, a resentful, verbally abusive pet who is nonetheless the only companion of the lonely (and curiously named, because she doesn’t seem to be Jewish) Winter Lipschitz. Winter is a sad-sack telephone operator at a TV home-shopping network whose biggest customer she also seems to be—her apartment is so packed with never-worn new clothes that she’s become a borderline hoarder. Bringing this anti-hero wondrously to life, Hill carries on her shoulders the whole long one-act, and it’s a good thing she’s so good, for with a less convincing portrayal the play might sink under the weight of its noticeable (if intermittent) earnestness.
As it is, the story of Winter’s descent into suicidal depression and her halting attempts to climb out of it as the Christmas holiday approaches hits hard, in spite of a twinkly supernatural element that lightens but also somewhat trivializes the deeply human tale. Buoyed by an able supporting cast, Hill dives headlong into Winter’s psyche. Afflicted with shyness and body image problems, she “can’t connect” because she gets “trapped inside myself,” a problem that doesn’t seem made for staging—least of all as a comedy—but pulls us in nonetheless.
Keeping her going, just barely, are a budding friendship with a co-worker (a stoner mailroom clerk played by the always amusing Nick Lewis); dogged support from her sad-eyed sister (the excellent Kirsten Hopkins); and the motivational punch of a brash, affirmation-spouting fairy-godmother/life coach, played by Nicole Beerman, who also provides the droll choreography. (“That’s why it’s called the present—it’s a gift!“)
The magical elements keep things only a slightly fantastical plane without detracting from Hill’s dead-on portrayal of real despair. Yet we experience a thrill of release in experiencing Winter’s plight; we laugh, traveling with her towards hope for redemption, even while doubting all along that it will come.
If there’s a message, it’s hard to pinpoint. Is it that we need supernatural aid to have a hope of pulling out of the Slough of Despond? If so, that makes this a quasi-religious story. But Christmas, for Winter, is a disappointment after the excitement of childhood Decembers; you grow up and “the day ends up smelling just like any other day.” (Is she Jewish after all?) Anyway, the beyond-human here is not what I’d call “spiritual,” but magical, which leads us back to art. What we have hear is a new fable for the holidays, an amusing, touching, and even uplifting comedy, not half so serious as I may have conveyed in this review. Stretched by a few pacing issues, the play isn’t perfect, but the writing is acute, the cast excellent, and Ms. Hill triumphant. Go see her.
Lonesome Winter runs at UNDER St. Marks in New York City until Dec. 19.