Jenny Vallancourt as Plath. Photo by Michael Discenza.

Jenny Vallancourt as Plath. Photo by Michael Discenza.

By Stanford Friedman

A musical about the brilliant, suicidal poet Sylvia Plath? At the New York International Fringe Festival? It’s a scenario ripe with possibilities: A new camp classic or the next Next to Normal or the mother of all daddy-hating one acts. But the fact that the piece is entitled Plath. and not Plath! is telling. This work, which began life at Barnard College, is a bleak, scholarly and mostly monochrome affair, narrow in focus, lacking the poet’s heart while obsessing over her insecurities.

The book, by Molly Rose Heller, explores a short segment of of the poet’s short life, from 1950 to 1953, during which Sylvia (Jenny Vallancort) leaves home to attend Smith College, spends a summer in New York, having won a guest editorship at Mademoiselle magazine, and then returns home and attempts to kill herself with an overdose of her mother’s sleeping pills. As staged by director Emily Feinstein, we follow Sylvia from the inside out. With Plath’s personal journal as the roadmap, we watch her frustrations mount and her depression build, while Dr. Lindemann (Shane Salk), an ethereal and omnipresent psychologist, pesters her into a state of desperation. The sound of a pen scrawling on paper reverberates, like rats clawing at the walls, and sheets of paper fly around Christina Tang’s black and white set, further propelling Plath toward her date with a pill bottle in the crawl space of her childhood home.

Heller gives us little reason to root for our heroine, seemingly always the victim and showing little evidence of the powerhouse she would become in the mid 50’s, before ultimately succumbing to depression in 1963. Vallancort has a likeable stage presence but displays none of the coyness one associates with Plath. Her thin, unmicrophoned voice is overpowered by the otherwise much appreciated 5-piece orchestra that handles Fernanda Douglas’ dignified score with aplomb. Vallancort also happens to be the shortest person on stage, often appearing overwhelmed by her mother (Alison Lea Bender), her dates, and her catty college dorm mates, when in reality Plath was a full 5’9” and would have seen eye to eye with any of them. As the doctor, Salk does not help matters with his wooden and mannered interpretation. Michael Lorz fares better in dual roles as Sylvia’s charismatic brother, Warren, and as one of her would-be beaus; the kind of split-performance that could drive a girl crazy.

Halfway through the show, an interesting thing happens. Douglas temporarily abandons her melancholy score in favor of a 50’s do-wop number where Sylvia dances her way through several suitors, including a charming and funny turn with a handsome med student who calls himself Dr. Dick (RJ Woessner). It’s the kind of weird and risky scene that makes an audience wish that Douglas, Heller and company could have found other appropriately twisted and theatrical ways to bring this dark, cerebral exploration of mental illness into living color.  

Plath. – Music by Fernanda Douglas, Book and lyrics by Molly Rose Heller, directed by Emily Feinstein.

WITH: Allison Lea Bender (Ensemble), Mara Jill Herman (Mademoiselle), Michael Lorz (Warren), Martavius Parrish (Ensemble), Shane Salk (Dr. Lindemann), Samantha Schiffman (Ensemble), Jenny Vallancourt (Sylvia) and RJ Woessner (Dick).

Scenic and Lighting Design by Christina Tang; Costume Design by Nell Simon, Sound Design by Gabe Lozado; Amelia Lembeck, stage manager. At The New York International Fringe Festival, The Theatre at the 14th Street Y, 344 E 14th St., Remaining Performances – Tuesday, August 25th at 8:45PM, Thursday, August 27th at 7:00PM, Saturday, August 29th at 1:45PM. Running Time: 75 minutes.