By Ron Fassler . . .

As you enter the Atlantic Theatre Company’s production of Clare Barron’s new play Shhhh, the stage space is broken into sections: a sofa (perhaps representing a living room), a bed (a bedroom), a bit of a kitchen, and a bathroom (complete with sink and toilet). Much like the famous quote attributed to the playwright Anton Chekhov, “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired, otherwise don’t put it there,” the same could be said about this toilet. So, when during scene two Kyle (Greg Keller) sits down for a long pee, there wasn’t call for much surprise. However, when Kyle engages in toe sex with his female partner who is lying on the bathroom floor while he’s still seated on the toilet, I was caught a bit off guard. When you consider what preceded the scene was an opening monologue spoken in near total darkness by a character identified in the program as Witchy Witch (Constance Shulman), whose breathy delivery into a microphone seduced the audience in AMSR fashion, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out this is not your mom and pop’s theatre.

Which brings me to a self-revelation. Having begun my New York theatre going in a serious way more than fifty years ago as a twelve-year-old, I’ve observed firsthand playwrights of every stripe experimenting with how best to get their message across. And the older I get, instead of being more closed off and yearning for the “old days,” I find that I’m especially open with exploring new forms of expression (less so with musicals, but I’m getting there). But when it comes to a playwright as daring as Clare Barron, I don’t want to say she had me at “hello” with the toilet, but after this tantalizing production, I’m ready to proclaim myself a fan.

Constance Shulman – Clare Barron

Barron, who also directed and portrays the leading role of Shareen, wants to talk about sex not to titillate, but to dig deep into the underbelly of the yearning for connection, which in these fragile times, is as fragmented as ever. And with fragmentation very much at the root of her storytelling, the audience is required to jump around with her thinking and try and grab what’s understandable and relatable on one’s own terms. My interest never lagged, even when I was unsure of what was going on. Barron brings something up, then drops it, leaving it completely unresolved and sometimes causing to wonder why it was there in the first place. Yet none of this was maddening, which in the hands of someone less skillful, would not have been the case.

Nina Grollman – Annie Fang

Ostensibly the story of two sisters (Shareen and Witchy Witch), the text declares them two years apart in age, yet they are played by actors thirty years apart. Each live their own very separate lives, bonded by their dissatisfaction with how their lives have worked out up until this point. They seek love, seemingly in the wrong places, without much confidence they will find what they’re looking for. In one long scene (the play’s best), we are treated to some frank talk between two young women who have nothing to do with anyone else in the play. While Shareen sits quietly to the side, alone in a pizza place, these two characters identified as Sandra (Annie Fang) and Francis (Nina Goldman), chat with honest, carefree abandon. Both Fang and Goldman give performances of the rarest kind; so totally believable that you forget you are watching a play, and instead, listen in on a conversation you haven’t been invited into (just like Shareen, stage left). While watching, I felt I was seeing the sort of perfection Mike Nichols strived to achieve in his directing, where human behavior is everything and lines flow effortlessly, leaving one startled by the tremendous power conveyed in its simplicity.

Constance Shulman – Janice Amaya

Also in the cast is Janice Amaya as Penny, who we meet on something like a date with Witchy Witch at the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn. Devoid of any essentials towards discovering who their character is, Amaya imbues Penny with a mysteriousness that is passive, yet absorbing. All the actors are aided by expert costuming designed by Kaye Voyce, first rate lighting by Jen Schriever and an eclectic set by Arnulfo Maldonado that proved multi-functional, using almost as much space as the theatre physically permits.

That Shhhh is a strange play isn’t really open to debate. I think it works, which is certainly debatable. Bumping into a longtime friend and fellow critic on the way out of the theatre, I was somewhat taken aback that he felt the opposite about its merits, and yet I fully understand how it might not have been for him. But if an evening of outside-the-box theatre dealing with multiple aspects of sexuality and sensuality, is something you crave, then you’ll be most interested in what Clare Barron has to say about the moment at hand in 2022 American life.

Shhhh is playing at the Atlantic Theatre Stage 2, 330 W 16th Street, NYC, now through February 20th. For ticket information visit their website at

Photos: Ahron F. Foster

(Lead Photo: Clare Barron & Greg Keller)