There is something naggingly pat about Lynn Nottage’s play, set in 1905 New York City where an African-American seamstress makes satin corsets and lingerie for white society ladies and downtown prostitutes alike. This is the other side of Edith Wharton’s New York and in the forced-seeming irony of the story’s premise, Esther (Velma Austin), a one-woman Victoria’s Secret who churns out highly sexualized undergarments, is also single, shy and naïve when it comes to men. It should come as no surprise when she falls for a mysterious canal worker from Panama who seduces her via airmail. That he will betray her is a forgone conclusion. That she will rebound and set herself right again is also inevitable. It is slow going for much of the play’s first half hour, but things perk up with the introduction of Mayme, a would-be ragtime musician who earns her income from the men who visit her bed, and she is played with a delicate mix of salt and melancholy by JoNell Kennedy. But overall, the play suffers from an overabundance of nice: nice writing, nice performances, nice bittersweet ending. And nice is, well, nice. What’s so great about nice? The key element that seems to be missing from both the play and the Steppenwolf production (directed by Jessica Thebus) is a sense of Esther’s quiet battle with herself—there is turmoil in that head of hers, though it’s very tough to see it. What Nottage does achieve is a wonderful fetishizing of fabric. When the right texture caresses your skin it can be intoxicating; sometimes just talking about it is enough. (Nina Metz)
This production is now closed.