by Sarah Downs
In Night is a Room, playwright Naomi Wallace has accomplished that most difficult of tasks: she has written a story that is entirely new. And it’s drama with a capital D. The premise is simple enough: A woman has planned a surprise for her husband’s birthday, but she gets more than she bargained for. Wallace mines this premise for everything it’s got, and then some.
As the play begins, a coolly efficient Liana (Dagmara Dominczyk) has arranged to meet a rather peculiar older woman, Doré (Ann Dowd) to request that she participate in a surprise Liana has planned for her husband Marcus’s 40th birthday. Initially, Doré seems to struggle to hold onto the conversation. The older woman has clearly has been alone too long, spending more time with plants than people. Speaking to her in the slightly patronizing tone one employs when dealing with a recalcitrant child, Liana is sure she will easily succeed in coaxing Doré to do her bidding if she is patient and speaks in words of one syllable. Doré proves a tougher nut to crack.
We meet Marcus (Bill Heck) in the upscale flat he and his wife enjoy decorating and redecorating. Currently in the throes of yet another artistic outburst, he and Liana contemplate the imminent transformation of their elegant living room. They have such enthusiasm for each other and the little world they have created. He’s passionate about his work as a teacher; she carries her success as an advertising executive with easy pride. In this domestic setting their conversation has a touch of the self-conscious repartee of Noel Coward as each tries to out charm the other. This is the marriage everyone envies, including Marcus and Liana.
Naomi Wallace has gifted the actors and director a script rife with possibility. They have dug into this material with both hands. Their investment is complete. Talented, skilled and experienced, all three actors deliver, giving robust, textured performances. Ann Dowd’s characterization of Doré is spot on, alternating between odd non sequitur and the glimmer of something fiery beneath. She feels rooted but not stuck. Bill Heck’s Marcus is a man in control, sexy, even a little dangerous. He’s all laughter and spark – jetting around the room. He plays the free and easy counterpoint to Dominczyk’s more controlled and controlling Liana. They seem to balance each other, but you feel a question mark lurking underneath Marcus’s assured demeanor.
In this excellent company Dagmara Dominczyk’s performance as Liana stands out. She is incandescent. Every nuanced word, every layer, every little laugh, every step along the roadmap of her character, turning on a dime within her facile mind, keeps you guessing. Dominczyk is at once crystalline and warm. Her Liana could cut you or embrace you in the blink of an eye.
Director Bill Rauch demonstrates a mastery of working with powerful material, shepherding its varied elements with assured simplicity. He guides the arc of the narrative allowing it to dance on the verge of chaos, reining it in at the exact moment. He builds the intensity consistently and almost imperceptibly, even through the intermission. Act II’s energy picks up where Act I left off. There is no loss of integrity. You wonder how the stakes could possibly get higher, but they do.
The set design by Rachel Hauck is unfussy and attractive, utilizing minimal set pieces to maximum effect. Lighting by Jen Schriever is appropriately hands-off, evoking interior and exterior spaces with simplicity, assisted by the gently haunting music of Leah Gelpe’s sound design. Clint Ramos’s costumes hit the right note (and oh the shoes Liana wears at the top of the show – where can I get a pair?!)
My one issue with Night is a Room lies in the ending. It feels abrupt. After all that operatic drama the resolution of the story feels a bit anticlimactic, leaving one feeling a little shortchanged. However, part of that may have been due to the ring of someone’s cell phone right at the very last minute. (Please, if you cannot figure out how to turn off your phone, leave it at home.)
Nevertheless, Night is a Room is thought-provoking, gripping drama. As the tension builds you are caught between Can’t. Watch. and Must. Look., but resistance is futile.
Night is a Room, written by Naomi Wallace, directed by Bill Rauch,
Presented by the Signature Theatre, November 3, 2015 to December 20, 2015
at The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street (between 9th and 10th Avenues)
To purchase tickets call Ticket Services at 212-244-7529 (Tues. – Sun., 11am – 6pm) or visit signaturetheatre.org