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Theater Review (NYC): Nance O’Neil

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Well over a century has passed since the famous Fall River murders, but we’re still fascinated by Lizzie Borden. One of the the best musicals of 2009 took on the violent mystery of the murders of Borden’s father and stepmother, of which she was acquitted and no one ever convicted; now playwright David Foley has imagined the details behind her friendship, 12 years later, with famed actress Nance O’Neil.

In Blue Coyote’s production of Nance O’Neil the title character is played with regal splendor, if slightly overenunciated formality, by the impressive Rachel Brown (also known as burlesque performer Sapphire Jones), whom I remember as being effective in a very different type of role in The Night Carter was Bad. Jonna McElrath, who was also superb in Blue Coyote’s Conversations on Russian Literature, plays Borden with, if you can picture such a thing, free-spirited focus. A complex character, she haughtily ignores her continued notoriety, but the flip side is a childish pretense that she can live the normal life of leisure her wealth would ensure if she were anyone else.

Borden and O’Neil were rumored to have had a love affair, though some historians doubt this. Foley postulates it as unrequited, with the glamorous actress parlaying Borden’s infatuation into various benefits for herself—a new house, relief from her debts. In any case, something about their association caused a terrible rift between Lizzie and her sister Emma, as this 1905 newspaper clipping attests. Jane Titus plays Emma with tragic gravitas—”she doesn’t feel right unless something’s wrong,” Lizzie casually observes—while Frank Anderson, who co-starred with McElrath in Conversations, is all sardonic bemusement as Nance’s producer and svengali McKee Rankin…except in one beautifully played, drunken scene where his loneliness gets the better of him.

It’s a melodrama of sad partings that engages to some degree in a dialogue with the traditions of theater itself, specifically Victorian-era theater in the United States. Played in formal style, it can feel a bit stiff, but that does make the gutsy moments the more effective. Although the play posits a solution to the old mystery that doesn’t hold Lizzie culpable, this Lizzie is thoroughly capable of calling on the powers of her legend when provoked.

The show features a fifth star, comprised of Christi Coufal’s lovely period costumes and Emily Inglis’s meticulous, rose-hued set. Gary Shrader’s direction is appropriately formal. Nance O’Neil runs through Oct. 9 at the Access Theater at 380 Broadway.

Photo by Beau Allulli

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is an Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. He writes the blog Park Odyssey, for which he is visiting and blogging every park in New York City—over a thousand of them. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. By night he's a working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.
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