A famous, controversial diarist and writer of erotica dies and finds herself in a dreamlike version of the ancient Greeks’ underworld. In Anaïs Nin Goes to Hell, the dead live on as their living selves, in the forms and at the ages they best remember, able to reason and converse but unable to sleep, though the islands of their archipelago are shrouded in eternal night. On one of these specks of land a small band of famous women from history and myth have spent decades, centuries, or longer waiting for the men they left behind – or who left them.
Is this any way to live? asks a nonplussed Anaïs Nin, an island-hopping shade rafting ashore with her famous diaries and the same high-toned passion she exuded in life. She finds a dewy young Andromeda awaiting her Perseus, a haughty Cleopatra pining for her son, a cowled and habited Heloise fixating on her gelded Abelard, a boyish and militant Joan of Arc seeking her Lord and Savior, and an aged Queen Victoria patiently awaiting reunion with her Albert.
Yet these women are more like the independent-minded Anaïs than they may have thought. Through dialogue and storytelling, we get to know each. Playwright David Stallings’s potentially gimmicky concept, directed by Antonio Minino with equal parts gravitas and wit, flowers into a richly imagined garden of passions, philosophy, and humor.
Stirred by the arrival of the eroticist, then given a chance to escape by the arrival, finally, of a man – but one who is also searching for his man (the identity of the pair too delicious to reveal) – each woman faces a choice. But they have a chance to make choices that are centered, finally, on their own wishes and identities rather than defined by their relationships with men.
Manhattan Theatre Works goes out in style with this, its final production, with a fine creative team and an excellent cast. Amanda Jones is especially commanding as Nin, but each cast member brings her own strengths. Mlé Chester applies both canny power and youthful innocence to the naïf Andromeda. Mel House finds deep sincerity in Stallings’s anachronistically foul-tongued Heloise. Nylda Mark is all sensuous self-possession as Cleopatra; Madalyn McKay brought me almost to tears recounting Victoria’s love-and-loss tale; and Stephanie Willing as Joan of Arc turns in a believably child-soldier, a character who resonates with the up-to-the-minute issue of the rights of transgender students.
Supported by subtle sound effects and lighting by Martha Goode and Daniel Gallagher respectively, Izzy Fields’s effective costumes, and Blair Mielnik’s wide open, fantasy-appropriate set, Minino skillfully paces and focuses the action while drawing on the actors’ strengths. Anaïs Nin Goes to Hell runs through Oct. 29 at the Theater at the 14th Street Y, New York City. For tickets visit the 14th Street Y website or call 646-395-4310.