Three's a Crowd in Orange, Hat & Grace

09/24/2010 7:00 AM |

Orange, Hat & Grace
Written by Gregory S. Moss
Directed by Sarah Benson

Orange's world is falling apart, fraying and becoming increasingly porous. Nestled away comfortably, mysteriously in a nameless, nondescript forest, she has sustained a stable routine for years, decades even perhaps. Her two visitors in Gregory S. Moss's new Gothic woodland fable Orange, Hat & Grace (at Soho Rep through October 10) merely precipitate a change that's already legible everywhere in the environment when Hat (Matthew Maher) comes banging on Orange's (Stephanie Roth Haberle) creaky cabin, not to introduce himself but to take its planks for firewood. The forest is dying, the wood is rotten, nothing grows in the soil and, by play's end, dead birds are dropping out of the sky. The setting—rendered in incredible textural detail, all rustling, squeaking, weighted with tangible mass in Rachel Hauck's stellar, pulley-rigged design—suggests a Great Depression-era settlement in the woods, but there's nothing historical to this haunting hamlet. Moss's vision of the past is intentionally vague, at once very clearly American—Dorothea Lange photos and Grant Wood's painting "American Gothic" provided inspiration for the look of the show—but also not exactly part of this world. Grace (Reyna de Courcy), climbing out of the soil-covered stage just as the play begins, suggests how unstable its psychic space can become.

Put succinctly, this wilderness is more symbolic than literal. Orange's ramshackle cabin functions as an outpost of civilization, close quarters where etiquette and routine are observed and enforced obsessively to stave off the alternative: sleeping in dirt beds and eating rodents. That's Hat's situation when he arrives, and as Orange reigns in his wildness both in manner and appearance—a tender shaving scene is especially endearing—he helps her loosen up some. Their pupil-sexual partner arrangement plays his bumbling sweetness against her steadfast strictness. "I'm wooing you," he tells her moments after they meet as he smashes at her roof, "I'm pitching woo, right here at your door." Maher, doing a sort of squirrely Midwestern accent, gets the lion's share of the play's laughs, including a side-splitting storytelling sequence. Haberle guards the deep-seated fears that, underneath her character's stance of moral rectitude, motivate disproportionate bursts of anger with rationalizing condescension. She occasionally lets her screen slip, though, like during a terrifying monologue delivered while she chops a parsnip. As the ghost(ly) Grace, de Courcy has unfortunately few lines despite being onstage the whole time, delivered in a chilly monotone to prod the loosely formed couple towards their breaking point. Despite the excellent set, cast, comic moments and costumes—call it "Dust Bowl chic"—though, Moss's story feels slight.

The play's radical shifts in tone may have something to do with this impression of jarring unevenness. Moments of sweet domestic comedy quickly flip into shouting matches, a sharp line between gravity and light-heartedness that Sarah Benson's direction sometimes dulls with casual pauses and slow transitions between scenes. Squandered momentum may also stem from the unfairly matched romantic and dramatic story lines. The relationship between Orange and Hat (whose way of saying yes, a compulsive conflation of "yep" and "hey," could be a surreptitious self assertion: "Hat, hat, hat!") works well in fits and starts. But the threat represented by Grace, whether of environmental apocalypse—she's essentially been raised by a tree—the specter of an abandoned child come home to roost, or something else entirely (vengeful pagan goddess?) remains frustratingly vague. The cast nails Moss's comic scenes, but the moments of dread lack the mood of approaching doom that seems sufficient to move the characters to increasingly extreme acts. Within Orange, Hat & Grace there's a superb romance ("Orange and Hat"), and an underdeveloped but promising thriller ("Orange and Grace"). But, as Hat finds out right after he suggests that the two plots converge—"It's the three of us, together… All of us inside, see, like a family"—the forest's not big enough for all of them.

(photo credit: Carol Rosegg)