There’s considerably more angst than bliss in Jami Brandli’s misleadingly titled play, premiering at the Promethean Theatre Ensemble. An interesting premise that could have worked well in a shorter, less sententious, more whimsical work instead translates into a stiff and tedious guilt trip of a show.
Set in New Jersey in 1960, this feminist parable treats the death that year of etiquette maven Emily Post as a twilight of the gods, allowing American women to start to free themselves from fifties conformity and the feminine mystique. That’s already a long step into social symbolism, but we’ve barely begun. The four female roles are modern-day versions of figures from Greek mythology: namely, Medea, Antigone, Clytemnestra and Cassandra. Their pinched suburban existences, presided over by the judgmental spirit of Emily Post, is a reenactment of classical tragedies, under the basically unchanging strictures imposed by patriarchy. And if that weren’t enough, the play also tackles sixties-era racism, snobbery, corporate maneuvering, medical abuse of women, adultery and the mistreatment of native Hawaiians, all from a sternly unforgiving twenty-first-century perspective.
It’s rare to wish for less thematic content and more dramatic scaffolding, but this play is an exception. Brandli seems to believe that there’s no point drawing in viewers with a rousing story when you can just lecture them about social evils. There’s not much that director Anna Bahow can do to impart texture or depth to these schematic characters and situations, which offer little sense of either Ike-era America or Homeric Greece.
The animating idea—and it’s an interesting one—is that tragedy, with its fatal flaws and cyclical violence and inevitable suffering, is the artistic expression of a hierarchical, oppressive society. When male domination breaks down, female tragedy vanishes along with it. Unfortunately, none of the four interwoven tales—that of Maddy/Medea (Alice Wu) as a scorned, pill-popping wife whose rage spills over onto her two children, Antonia/Antigone (Kellen Robinson) as a rebellious teenager secretly dating a black boy, Clementine/Clytemnestra (the superb Jamie Bragg) as a wronged and wrathful woman having an affair with her doctor, and Cassandra (Kaci Antkiewicz) as a black secretary from Troy, Ohio (get it?) cursed with useless clairvoyance—really ripens, and none of the characters has much arc. The one dramatically compelling figure is Clementine, whose first act tryst with her doctor-lover simmers with film noir energy and tension. Something is actually happening in that scene, unlike too many of the others, which go down like talky and overwrought Victorian melodrama given a “#MeToo”-style rewrite.
Antkiewicz’s Cassandra, with her perpetually pursed lips and knit brow, is the picture of sulky, self-absorbed adolescence, meaning that the second act, which she dominates, doesn’t exactly fly by. But what really shreds any sense of dramatic coherence is the on-stage appearance of Apollo (Jared Dennis, who doubles in the equally thankless role of Clementine’s Dr. Smith). The in-the-flesh presence of the god—here portrayed almost but not quite farcically as the avatar of male egotism and pigginess—is a head-scratcher: Are we in North Orange, New Jersey or ancient Greece? Why does only Cassandra see Apollo and why does she alone remember her past incarnations? Are the mythological motifs symbolic plot devices or literal identities?
This dramaturgical muddle doesn’t help a play already burdened with too much complaining and commiserating and not enough action and conflict. All of the characters feel cursed, but what dooms the play itself is not fate or hubris but rather its own preachiness, aversion to irony and general tone-deafness. (Hugh Iglarsh)
Promethean Theatre Ensemble at the Athenaeum, 2936 North Southport (773)935-6875, prometheantheatre.org, $17-$27. Through August 25.