Playwright Sarah Shaefer’s The Gin Baby is a lot like its heroine: worse than it looks.
The play struggles with the story of a beautiful actress who allows alcohol to do what it does best: interfere with career, relationships, future. When we meet Amelia, she is a lovely woman who blows an audition and uses that as an excuse to go on a bender or three on the way to a psychiatric hospital for rehab. All along the journey her hair is perfectly blown out, and we just have to take others’ words for it that she is as low as she can go and that she smells like vomit, because to us, the audience, actress Lesley Shires (pictured above) appears quite fresh. Ms. Shires is ferocious in her performance, but we are given little context for the character’s spiral, and there is no sense of tragedy.
But the play looks good. At the Interborough Repertory Theater on Christopher Street in the West Village, the production takes advantage of an agile, spare space, beautifully constructed here by set designer John McDermott through suggestion and through multimedia to be that subway platform or this ward unit. Director Daniel Talbott gives the play a great energy even if the characterizations themselves lack it. To the production’s credit, it fills in gaps of connection to the main character through its pacing and cultural references.
Performances by all are passionate, but they are given nothing new to offer in these days of wine and roses or rather gin and more gin. One case in point is Lavender (Shyko Amos), a stock character as the no-nonsense admitting nurse at the ward. Charlotte Graham is Betsey who is another type, a clueless colleague on the verge of acting success. Every commiserating word out of Betsey/Elizabeth’s mouth is a knife through Amelia’s pale skin. The men in Amelia’s life, Dave (Maxwell Hamilton) and Asa (Chris Stack), use her now or even worse, have no use for her anymore.
Once Amelia lands in rehab, her therapist presents an interesting twist on a familiar story as an MSW (Masters in Social Work) here in the U.S. who also holds a doctorate in her native country. Unsurprisingly this is an opportunity for Amelia to lash out at a mental health professional seemingly unqualified by virtue of an international border, but it turns out the resistance to counseling here is warranted. No matter in what country Dr. Ty (Jelena Stupljanin) is counseling, the words that come out of her mouth would never be heard during a real therapy session unless the practitioner were angling for a malpractice suit. The therapist’s, yes therapist’s, emotional outbursts are so unhinged that I suspect they are based on reality – to be filed under “truth is stranger than fiction.” In fact the whole evening of theater echoes someone’s trip down a fuzzy memory lane, remnants of a particularly onerous group therapy session.
The play might be more effective if it didn’t focus so much on Amelia, but instead allowed us more time with Amelia’s psych ward roommate and inevitable sidekick (because this is how these stories go). Ellen is played by the delightful Jenny Seastone Stern. Perhaps by virtue of Ellen being off-center both in story and in narrative, the character has something new to say. Ellen becomes more interesting because she is an angled reflection of Amelia. Ellen has things; Amelia does not. Ellen has parents, dancing, art, plants. Amelia has nothing tangible, but she has talent and an addiction. At least she tells us so.
Within these details of the relationship between the two characters, there lies empathy; something beyond “I’m the Angelina Jolie to your Winona Ryder.” Ms. Stern’s face is wonderfully expressive; stealth and innocence manage to coexist side by side in her gaze. Her physicality is impressive; I could have watched her do yoga all night long.
Oh, poor Amelia. If only you hadn’t failed that audition. Then you wouldn’t spiral down a series of self-hating actions like unsafe sex washed down with gallons of bottom-shelf alcohol. And then there wouldn’t be The Gin Baby, an indulgent glance into alcoholism, depression and all-around self-hatred. It is a sad story of alcoholism and depression, but it is a familiar one.