BWW Review: INSIGNIFICANCE at Nora Theatre
Written by Terry Johnson, Directed by Daniel Gidron; Scenic Design, Brynna Bloomfield; Costume Design, Gail Astrid Buckley; Lighting Design, Scott Pinkney; Sound Design, Dewey Dellay; Properties Artisan, Megan F. Kinneen; Properties Associate, Jamie Biancardi; Stage Manager, Dominique D. Burford; Assistant Stage Manager, Fatimah Mateen; Assistant to the Director, Hatem Adell
CAST: Stacy Fischer, Richard McElvain, Alexander Platt, Barry M. Press
Performances through February 9 by The Nora Theatre Company at Central Square Theater, 450 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA; Box Office 866-811-4111 or www.centralsquaretheater.org
Terry Johnson's 1982 play Insignificance is populated with four iconic characters that have held great significance in American culture. Viewing a snapshot of their lives, the playwright imagines their deeper motivations and longings to create a fantasy plotline that connects them to each other. Their celebrity being the common denominator, this unlikely quartet shares a moment in space and time in a New York City hotel room in 1953.
The Professor (Richard McElvain) is bent over his calculations on the shape of the universe when he is visited by the witch-hunting Senator (Barry M. Press), subpoena in hand, hoping to cajole his cooperation with his Senate committee. After the official departs, the next knock on the door introduces The Actress (Stacy Fischer) who bears an uncanny resemblance to Marilyn Monroe. Beautiful and breathy, her appearance belies her intelligence as she demonstrates her understanding of the Theory of Relativity, using toy trains and flashlights.
Appreciating the Professor for his mind and fame, the Actress desires him, but their attempted coitus is interrupted when her loutish husband The Ballplayer (Alexander Platt) pounds on the door demanding to be let in. A physical specimen whose gum-chomping jaw works faster than his brain, hubbie is jealous of the public ogling and adulation of his wife and wants her to go home with him. Undaunted by the genius in the room, he also brags to the Professor about all of the trading cards that have featured him.
Insignificance is a slight story that is primarily character-driven. One of the interesting aspects of the play is Johnson's differentiation of the characters' relationship to their fame. The Professor does not wish to be in the limelight, caring only about his work and furthering his understanding of the universe. He harbors a secret from his past that the Actress eventually wheedles out of him, but it has nothing to do with what the Senator's committee is investigating. For his part, the Senator is interested in self-promotion and keeping his name in the news, unable to foresee the bigger picture with his solipsistic viewpoint. As her husband aptly states, the Actress needs both adulation and solitude. Her struggle with celebrity and trying to figure out what she wants is the most poignant, perhaps informed by what we know of Monroe's persona. The Ballplayer is certainly more comfortable with his fame than he is with hers, but he slowly realizes that there needs to be something more in his life.
Director Daniel Gidron draws impressive performances from the cast without resorting to caricature or imitation. Gail Astrid Buckley costumes Fischer in a billowy, white dress that is evocative of the famous one Monroe wore in "The Seven Year Itch," but the dress and blonde wig merely amplify the way she inhabits the character. With her voice and body language, Fischer achieves a blend of sexy and vulnerable, and she is the main reason to see this play. McElvain displays unassuming intelligence and is sweetly protective toward the Actress, while showing defiance toward the Senator. Press bears a resemblance to Richard M. Nixon (sorry!) which raises the nefarious quotient of his portrayal. Recently seen as the villain in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Stoneham Theatre), Platt does quite the turnaround here, speaking fluent Brooklynese and taking big swings with an imaginary baseball bat.
The work of the design team gives a boost to our appreciation of the time and place of the play. The generic hotel room is realized by Scenic Designer Brynna Bloomfield and Scott Pinkney provides the lighting, including a few brilliant flashes to indicate the Professor having a vision. Dewey Dellay's accompanying sound effects include traffic and crowd noise outside the hotel window and harp-like music at the top of the show. Buckley dresses the Professor in a gray sweatshirt with a large letter P on the chest, attires the Ballplayer in a snazzy sharkskin suit, and has found a couple of fabulous 50s-style wide ties to go with the Senator's double-breasted suit.
Photo credit: A. R. Sinclair Photography (Alexander Platt, Richard McElvain, Stacy Fischer)