What is a nice girl to do when her grieving mother insists she keep the promise made to her now deceased father that she would return home from her freshman year of college after the funeral to care for her mother? If the young woman were nineteen it might seem a reasonable and necessary – although temporary – decision: suspend matriculation at college, spend some bereavement time with mum, and return to her studies. Unfortunately, this is not the case In Melissa Ross’s new play “Nice Girl,” currently playing at the Labyrinth Theatre Company. Josephine Rosen (Diane Davis) the nice girl is late thirty-something and never returned to college, never dated, never married and is now - in her words - a spinster. And her mother Francine (Kathryn Kates) is an insufferable and controlling agoraphobic hypochondriac who never encouraged her daughter to return to college and has sacrificed Josephine on the altar of arrested development.
Josephine is part of a dysfunctional extended family that includes her mother, her co-worker Sherry and Sherry’s married (but promising soon-not-to-be) love interest Donny (Nick Cordero). Needing rescue from a string of married cads promising to abandon their loveless marriage to take Sherry to wife, Sherry is certain Donny is the one – after all he’s a neurologist. “He’s like a gynecologist,” Sherry tells Francine, “except he’s for men.” In those few words, playwright Melissa Ross manages to define the wonderful character of Sherry played with a clueless competence by Liv Rooth. Sherry ignites Josephine’s latent desire to be separated and individuated from the clawing claustrophobia of her life with Francine and – combined with a new love interest Josephine finds in the local butcher – pushes Josephine to the tipping point.
It only takes one member of a dysfunctional family system to bring that system to dissolution and in this interesting new play, Josephine is that change agent. No longer willing to be at her mother’s beck and call, she informs her mother she is moving out. That announcement puts Francine’s controlling behavior into hyper drive (perhaps the climax of the dramatic arc) and the falling action – further driven by Josephine’s discovery that her butcher might have a split personality – provides a solid tragi-comedic theatre experience. Directed meticulously but at times unevenly by Mimi O’Donnell, the competent ensemble cast brings rich authentic performances to their characters, each seeking in her or his unique way, to hold on to or discover some semblance of a loving relationship.
Diane Davis brings depth and dimension to her character Josephine. Her ‘nice girl’ is brimming with repressed anger and guilt and Ms. Davis’s performance gives a realistic balance between that bubbling rage and the fear involved in removing the character from the dysfunction. Kathryn Kates is the perfect mother unwilling to let go of her daughter because she refuses to abandon two decades of bereavement and move on with her life. Francine is not a likeable character and sometimes Ms. Kates might ratchet up her character’s controlling demeanor. Nick Cordero’s puppy-eyed Donny is the perfect counterpoint to Sherry’s naiveté and Josephine’s innocence and his performance is solid. Director Mimi O’Donnell might have challenged her cast to deepen the connections between the characters particularly the bittersweet relationship between daughter and mother.
David Meyer’s multipurpose set functions splendidly and makes use of every corner of the Labyrinth Theatre Company’s stage. Sliding and rotating walls function seamlessly and, nicely lighted by Japhy Weideman, these walls envelope the play’s action with authentic charm.
At the play’s end, Josephine waits outside on the porch for her ride to a new life. Someone has promised to help her escape her self-inflicted prison. The audience wonders if the car lights illuminating the driveway are those of her rescue vehicle or perhaps something else Francine has concocted to further delay her daughter’s ascent into adulthood. “Nice Girl” is a delicious bit of theatre well worth the visit.
The creative team for “Nice Girl” includes David Meyer (set design), Emily Rebholz (costume design), Japhy Weideman (lighting design), Ryan Rumery (sound and music), and Dennis O’Leary-Gullo (production manager). Production photos by Monique Carboni. At the Bank Street Theater, 155 Bank Street in the West Village, 212-513-1080, www.labtheater.org Through June 21. The running time is 1 hour and 45 minutes with one intermission.
With: Nick Cordero, Diane Davis, Kathryn Kates, and Liv Rooth.