It can be a pleasure to be perplexed. Anna Moench’s new three-character psychological drama unfolds in a series of short scenes that skip around in time and place. Only gradually do the sequence of events and the history of the relationships become (sort of) clear, and even then it’s hard to be certain what actually happened and what’s imaginary. But the sparkling language the playwright gives to her protagonists and the exquisite skill of the actors who play them in this Firework Theater world premiere add up to a most rewarding, if faintly exhausting, night at the theater.
Cluing us in immediately that something non-standard is in store, Maruti Evans’s set consists of a walled-in, pure white square lit by fluorescent tubes and suggesting a boxing or wrestling ring, especially with the audience seated on all four sides. Within this confined space the three characters spend the entire play. John (Eric Bryant) is a mostly mild-mannered office drone who’d like to start thinking about having a family and does things like impulsively bringing home a puppy without consulting his wife. She, Deb (Julie Fitzpatrick), is a busy, prim lawyer who finds the idea of pregnancy disgusting, but in Ms. Fitzpatrick’s sensitive portrayal she comes across as sympathetic and merely buttoned-up, not icy-hearted. An abstract argument about the dog brings out the fundamental conflict in the relationship.
DEB: But do I feel the deep, churning, warm, multi-faceted emotion of love for a dog? Of course not, I mean…that’s ridiculous.
JOHN: You’re kind of a heartless bitch.
JOHN: You’ve lived with this “animal” since he was a tiny puppy.You have taken care of him and protected him. When you aren’t around he mopes in his kennel, and when you get home it’s like the sun has finally touched the dark side of his moon. And you barely feel even a flicker of something you’d recognize as “love” for him?
DEB: It’s not him, individually!
Do you really want me to feel for this animal what I feel for you?
John doesn’t really think Deb’s a heartless bitch – not most of the time, anyway. He’s a sensitive Everyman, the kind of character Greg Kinnear might play in a movie, a bit of a milquetoast though not entirely lacking in confidence or fire. Yet something dissatisfies him so deeply that another woman (Vanessa Wasche) lives in their wrestling ring too, one who sometimes seems to come from a later period in John’s life but whose name, Deborah, and shifting occupations suggest that she’s a construct of his imagination, a version of Deb.
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.