Three plays at the Public Theater

The public theater had a charming idea in presenting three plays by women mostly about women. Unfortunately, two of them are losers, and the third is not really a play. Thulani Davis’s Everybody’s Ruby – about the novelist Zora Neale Hurston covering, as a reporter, the case of a southern black woman who killed her white lover – is well-meaning but clunky. A play in which the protagonist sits or stands around much of the time, observing or being briefed by someone about what’s going on, stands nary a chance, especially if as ploddingly directed as this is by Kenny Leon. Viola Davis is powerful as Ruby, the defendant, but Phylicia Rashad gets lost as Zora. Even Marjorie Bradley Kellogg’s set manages only to increase the doldrums.

Any play that can make the magnificent actress Cherry Jones look – not bad; the telephone book couldn’t do that – merely okay has to be pretty awful, which is what Ellen McLaughlin’s Tongue of a Bird is. It concerns Maxine, a search-and-rescue pilot in mountain country, whose mother committed suicide when Maxine was a tot. She now has imaginary dialogues with her dead mother, who appears to her as Amelia Earhart floating and somersaulting in midair. She also has real, sometimes airborne, dialogues with the distraught Dessa, as they search for Dessa’s abducted young daughter, Charlotte (with whom she has unimaginable dialogues), and with her headstrong but pragmatic Polish grandmother, Zofia.

These dialogues, whether real or imagined, are unconscionably tedious and pretentiously pseudo-poetic. Could you endure the following, even from a mother suspended above your head? “There was nothing to do but force the shining divinity of myself through a hole in the rotting bird-nested roof and down the rickety attic steps and I could hear the rusted dead bolts sink themselves behind me. And as I stood in the damp, airless room of my particular life, grace slipped my grasp like the strings of balloons,” etc. No dead bolt could sink lower and deader than that.

Sharon Lawrence does gallantly by this stuff, as Miss Jones does by hers. Save for a very unpolished Polish accent, Elizabeth Wilson is a sturdy Zofia. Melissa Leo overdoes Dessa’s hysteria, but Julia McIlvaine amazes as Charlotte, whichever part of Rachel Hauck’s provocative set she pops out of.

In 2.5 Minute Ride, Lisa Kron monologizes mainly on three subjects: her trip with her aged father to Auschwitz, where his parents perished; her family’s yearly excursions from Michigan to an Ohio amusement park to gorge themselves on the food while indulging her father’s passion for roller coasters, especially the new and scary eponymous ride; and her brother David’s wedding at the Seaview Jewish Center in Canarsie to Shoshi, a Brooklyn girl he found on the Internet. Subsidiary subjects are Kron’s happy life with her companion, the Catholic Peg, and her friendships with Elizabeth, a young Dutchwoman who drives her and Dad to Auschwitz, and Mary, a videographer who eternalizes the Kron family shenanigans on tape.

A monologue should play better than it reads; with this one, it’s the reverse. Partly because of the device of pretending that the show is an illustrated lecture, except that the slides are just blank white light in different shapes, singled out by Kron’s laser pointer and commented on as if they were for real. This is funny a couple of times, and excruciating thereafter. And partly because Kron, a member of the performance group the Five Lesbian Brothers, is not appealing enough to carry off the show, whose bits are bigger than the sum of its parts. Her play would profit from being narrated by someone else, preferably David Hare. Even if most roller-coaster rides do last merely 2.5 minutes, I would find such a ride a gyp, and so might one feel about Kron’s considerably longer one.

Three plays at the Public Theater