The Hipster, the Hasid and The Wife in South Williamsburg

12/06/2010 4:00 AM |

The Wife
Written by Tommy Smith
Directed by May Adrales

"Okay, because I thought, well, you know," says the mumbling, over-earnest hipster Jake, "there's not a whole lot of interaction that goes on between you and us; the other people who live in your neighborhood." The young graphic designer's interlocutor, a young, married Hasidic woman from South Williamsburg named Ruth (Caitlin McDonough-Thayer), doesn't respond. The titular character in Tommy Smith's new play, The Wife (through December 19), remains monosyllabic throughout much of her own transformation. Although gentrification provides the backdrop for this sad, frightening and often extremely funny drama, it has more to do with dysfunctional homes and the inhabitants who make them so than the direct effects of real estate development (as in, for instance, last spring's Clybourne Park).

Of course, Jake (Jacob H. Knoll) would never have hired Ruth to cat-sit while he was away for work if he hadn't just moved to Williamsburg. The Access Theater's large loft space, four stories above Broadway in Tribeca, doubles perfectly as a young yuppie-aspirant's apartment, with the other scenes set on more-or-less abstracted little stages, located amidst five major seating areas spread along the walls of the theater. The quickly-paced transitions between scenes and staging areas can be distracting (or slightly uncomfortable), but by and large the effect comes off very well. Chilly streets, cramped apartments, stores, offices, vehicles, bars and forests often overlap, but the young ensemble's conviction creates distinct environments for each. Ruth and her husband Jakob (Noel Joseph Allain) sit at their small kitchen table flanked by an empty stroller, lonely and isolated in the large performance space yet simultaneously claustrophobic and panic-prone. Later Nance (Mary Jane Gibson) stumbles around the set in pale, street lamp-like lights (the evocative work of lighting designer Gina Scherr), leaving her ex (Jake) a long, loud and largely incomprehensible voicemail. The table in Jakob's light shop also serves as the line for an outdoor ATM and later on, overturned, doubles as the grave of Ruth's infant son. What could easily have been clumsy or unconvincing set design for a lesser production transforms with swift fluidity thanks to May Adrales's dynamic direction.

All these characters cross paths—even, unfortunately, Jake and Nance's teenage daughter Girly (Ayesha Ngaujah)—encounters that are structured by the play's many doublings. Jakob and Jake, Hasidic and hipster versions of one another, are emotional opposites yet temperamentally surprisingly similar. While they wait in line to take out cash one can't stop talking and the other says as little as possible. "That's so funny, man," says Jake, "to run into you." "Yes," Jakob deflects. Jake, undeterred, continues: "We, like, pull money from this hole together." Knoll gets the lion's share of the show's laughs, his uninhibited candor spewing forth awkward hilarity. "You don't even listen to the radio or read the newspaper?" he asks Ruth during their first meeting, "that's a pretty fucked up religion, I mean, I'm totally not an Anti-Semite but that's pretty fucked up." Ruth's crisis, though, has less to do with religion than with her loveless marriage, and the drug-addicted sometimes-sex worker Nance offers the promise of some sort of escape. Their doubling runs deeper: though Jakob doesn't dare touch his wife, whom he blames for their child's death, he's a regular customer of Nance's. Jake, on the other hand, wants nothing more to do with Nance while he falls for Ruth. Sadness, depression and fear dominate the show, despite the frequent laughter—and flashes of surrealism, as when Nance finds a ventriloquist's doll on the street and Ruth adopts it as her dead son's surrogate, or when Girly repeatedly talks to the disembodied voice of her long-gone father (Travis Allen). So while The Wife tells of neighborly behavior at its very worst, Smith and Adrales manage to keep its conflicting impulses in a thrilling, teetering balance for a 75-minute show that locates vitality in the perpetual instability of cities and their inhabitants.

(photo credit: Luke Norby)