by Stuart Miller
The Academy Awards devoted endless hours to the repeated praise of “movie magic,” even though that term often really refers to scientific innovation. The true magic in storytelling is more often found in the theater, where simplicity and a trust in– even a reliance on– the audience’s imagination remains a foundation of many good and great plays.
“The Providence of Neighboring Bodies,” by Jean Ann Douglass is a small, short play that uses the true history of the banishment of beavers from Rhode Island to concoct a comedy both about the haunting desperation of the lonely and a timely reminder of how willing people sacrifice the outsider or “other” in order to protect what is theirs.
Presented by the Dutch Kills Theater Company at the Ars Nova space, and directed by Jess Chayes, “Providence” contains plenty of theater magic, using a minimal set and few props and just three characters.
All it really needs are the two people and the beaver— yes, a beaver, albeit one who uses a laptop and has a killer recipe for pancakes–who come together and break apart during the play. They spend most of the evening talking directly to the audience, perhaps unable or afraid to communicate as easily with those who are right within their reach. (Douglass first made a name for herself in The Truck Project, where she and her husband Eric John Meyer would perform short absurdist plays inside of a truck parked on the streets of the city.)
Set on adjacent apartment balconies, the play explores a new, fragile friendship between two women: Dora is perky and ebullient but her good cheer has a relentless quality; Ronnie is weary and cynical and is resigned to having lost her way. Their potential friendship is upended by the arrival of Jane, the beaver, whose easy intimacy with each woman gnaws at the other.
Douglass has a flair for soliloquy aided by a keen eye for the details of everyday life. While Dora prepares her morning coffee, she tells us, “I go for a pee, get out my foam roller, and do weight lifting with cans of soup that I keep on the counter for this very purpose.”
The writing is enhanced, however, by a truly mesmerizing performance from Lori Elizabeth Parquet as Dora. (Dinah Berkeley is solid in the lesser role of Jane, while Ronnie is portrayed by Amy Staats, who stepped in as a replacement just before performances and is still not fully off book, yet captures the frazzled essence of her character.)
The show opens with Dora telling the audience, “I get up in the morning without an alarm. The sun streams into my bedroom in this really beautiful way that makes this part of the day so easy.” Parquet is herself so sunny that we are luxuriate in her mindless prattle unable to see at first she’s trying to hide her own isolation from herself
Little hints drop, like when she puts on makeup just to go onto the balcony with her coffee in the hope of befriending her neighbor, or when she practices how she’ll act surprised to find her there, delighting herself with each take.
When Dora finds Ronnie has gone back inside she decides to drink the second cup herself and this is when we start seeing how social isolation has damaged Dora.
“I’ve been trying to limit myself to one cup, more than that can make me anxious, irritable, in this way that even B vitamins can’t shake me out of. But what’s the harm in it now?…. If I get a little irritable, so what? Really. So what? Maybe sitting here on my balcony, irritable, will feel good for a change. It’s good to change your perspective every once in a while, and I’m looking at All. That. Coffee…and it feels good to be bad. It feels good to think about drinking All. That. Coffee and how sour I’ll feel.”
As Dora’s rant takes off from there Parquet’s magnetism makes her unhinged character so darn charming that we let her ramble on about nothing. Later, to protect the sanctity of all she thinks she has and deserves, this delusional windbag will use lies and heavy-handed law enforcement to rid herself of the industrious outsider. Yet Douglass’ comedy is so entertaining it isn’t until afterward that you realize it is a tragedy about America in its present chaos. That’s theater magic.
(Ars Nova, 511 W. 54th Street between 10th and 11th Avenue—through March 11th , ovationtix.com or 866-811-4111. Run Time listed at 75 minutes)
Photos: Alley Scott