Review: BROOKLYN LAUNDRY at Northlight Theatre

John Patrick Shanley's latest dramedy runs through May 12.

By: Apr. 22, 2024
Review: BROOKLYN LAUNDRY at Northlight Theatre
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There can be no doubt that American playwright John Patrick Shanley is having a moment of artistic revitalization and retrospection. DANNY AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA, the 1983 drama that marked the beginning of his promising career, received its second off-Broadway revival last season and starred Aubrey Plaza as a troubled young divorcée. His most famous work, the 2004 Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning DOUBT, just concluded a critically acclaimed Broadway run with Liev Schreiber as a charismatic priest suspected of sexual misconduct. Now, the 73-year-old Shanley returns to questions of love and uncertainty in his newest dramedy, BROOKLYN LAUNDRY, which opened at Northlight Theater on Friday night as part of the work’s rolling world premiere. But while the play boasts a talented cast gifted with good humor and heartfelt emotion, the uneven script feels as though it shrank in a dryer fed by clichés rather than coins. The production runs through May 12 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie.

Anyone familiar with Shanley’s award-winning screenplay for the 1987 film Moonstruck knows that he has a talent for finding something to laugh about amid all the disappointments of everyday life. And BROOKLYN LAUNDRY’s premise initially promises a similarly delightful narrative. Fran (Cassidy Slaughter-Mason), a “gloomy” woman always on her guard, walks into a laundromat run by the more cheerful, if slightly corny, Owen (Mark Montgomery). After some banter and the promise of free dry cleaning, Owen asks Fran out on a date, which she accepts with some hesitation. As it turns out, Fran’s gloominess stems from caring for an older sister dying of a brain tumor. And while he may come across as a perpetual optimist, Owen has struggled with romantic anxiety ever since his fiancé left him following a traumatic accident.

The play’s first three scenes indicate an expected but welcome return to familiar territory for Shanley: two New Yorkers rediscover romance despite feeling that the opportunity for love has already passed them by. But director BJ Jones takes this simple set-up and turns Fran and Owen’s first few scenes into a delightfully unpredictable pas de deux. Montgomery especially excels in his role, with a talent for dusting his lines with the deadpan flippancy well-known to anyone who has ever strolled through Bed-Stuy. His charisma breaks through even the cheesiest of lines (and Shanley has certainly given his actors plenty). When Owen holds up a loose quarter to Fran and asks if she’s “afraid of a little change,” Montgomery’s delivery is so self-conscious yet self-assured that it’s easy to see why Fran accepts his invitation for a dinner date.

It’s a bit less clear why Owen asks her out in the first place, though. At least in the play’s first scene, Slaughter-Mason speeds through her character’s lines with such clipped frustration that her desire to leave the laundromat as soon as possible feels palpable. This is an understandable desire for a young woman under a great deal of personal stress. But there’s little range to Fran’s initial characterization, and audiences never see the tenderness beneath Fran’s steely façade that leads her to take a chance on Owen even after he’s lost her laundry. Thankfully Slaughter-Mason finds this complexity in the following scene when Fran visits her sister Trish (Marika Mashburn) who is dying in hospice care. Here, Slaughter-Mason turns even the slightest acts of care—the fluffing of a pillow, the arrangement of flowers in a vase—into familiar avoidant behaviors that make Fran sympathetic and relatable, an audience proxy for anyone who has ever had to watch a loved one struggle through a long illness. It helps that Mashburn delivers a captivating performance in what is, unfortunately, her only scene. Her Trish never loses her wicked smile, even while waxing poetically about her impending death. As Trish drifts off into a painkiller-induced hallucination, Mashburn cracks jokes and recounts childhood memories with a calculated softness that leaves viewers hanging on to her every breath until the lights finally fade to black.

Then the play seamlessly shifts right into the evening’s best scene, the dinner date between Fran and Owen at a hip grill where bursts of flame frequently illuminate the dining room (lighting designer JR Lederle has clearly had great fun in bringing the play’s various locations to life). The dialogue clips along beautifully, the actors’ relaxed naturalism inviting audiences into their orbit even when the dialogue becomes heavy-handed in its metaphors (Owen chides Fran for being a “romantic” who wants to order dishes that can’t be found on the menu). It’s also a scene of welcome vulnerability between the two, reveling in this couple’s imperfections and making them feel—for the first time—like real people rather than mere characters.

And then Shanley’s script hits the Spin Cycle, shooting off the play’s elements in baffling directions. Fran’s personal tragedies begin mounting up so quickly that there were several moments when the revelation of some new obstacle was met with laughter from viewers before they uncomfortably realized that the latest plot twist wasn’t an ironic joke. By the show's end, her dramatic arc makes the Book of Job look like a series of mild inconveniences. When Fran and Owen embrace one another in the final scene, the reconciliation feels unearned, as though all the troubles of the last 80 minutes could be waved away with another unoriginal punchline.

That’s not to say there aren’t other highlights in BROOKLYN LAUNDRY. As Fran's other older sister Susie, Sandra Delgado makes the most of a role that essentially serves as a plot device, deftly switching to self-righteous anger when her attempts at humor fail to get Fran to fulfill her familial obligations. And Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s set design is a character unto itself, nearly three stories of steel girders and forgotten laundry hanging from tracks that provide the imposing background to every scene. The visual raises profound questions: Who did these clothes belong to? What happened to the lives lived inside of them? What does it mean to think of lost laundry as a metaphor for our own search for purpose, for our desire to find another person whose fit matches our own? Unfortunately, these are questions that Shanley’s script barely attempts to answer, despite the best efforts of this clearly capable cast.

Photo credit: Michael Brosilow



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