By Donna Herman
EST’s Youngblood Program has nurtured another winner, double-threat Abby Rosebrock’s Dido Of Idaho. Although the production could use a defter hand at the helm, the play takes surprising twists that turn our preconceptions upside down, and keeps us riveted to our seats.
In the opening scene we meet Nora (Layla Khosh), a young musicologist and Adjunct Professor, and Michael (Curran Connor), a poet and English Professor in his early 40’s. It’s a somewhat cringe-worthy lovers tryst between two self-involved intellectual academics. They’re listening to Purcell’s opera “Dido and Aeneas,” drinking too much wine on a weekday afternoon, and he’s lecturing her on what turns out to be her favorite opera.
Frankly, neither Nora nor Michael seem very appealing in this opening scene. He’s married and clearly has no intention of giving up his wife despite his protestations to the contrary to Nora. And Nora’s whiny, alcohol-fueled denigration of his pageant wife Crystal (Abby Rosebrock) as someone beneath their intellectual stature, who doesn’t need or deserve his love and protection like she does, renders her distasteful as well. He’s a pompous asshole, and she’s an alcoholic, dependent mess.
As soon as we find out that they’re actually in Michael’s house and he’s late for a class, you pretty much know how this is going to play out. But fair warning; playwright Rosebrock is setting us up. You may think you know how events are going to unfold, and how people are going to react, but in the inimitable words of Bette Davis in the film All About Eve “Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.” All four of the women in this postfeminist play turn out to be much different in the end then you perceive them to be in the beginning.
Rosebrock’s script is witty, perceptive and well-paced. But it’s also very nuanced. The opening scene is tricky. The characters are drunk academics and they’re having sex, discussing their relationship, listening to and singing and talking about opera. You need an experienced and careful director to stage the scene so it feels natural and it flows. Unfortunately, what I saw felt more like a classroom scene with awkward teenagers wrestling on a couch. And Nora seemed to be much more at home than did Michael.
In general, I felt that many of the production choices (or lack thereof) did not serve the play as well as they should have. The collaboration between Director Mikhaela Mahony and Scenic Designer Angelica Borrero was not as fruitful as it could have been. There are two main locations in the play – Michael and Crystal’s condo living room, and Nora’s mother Julie (Dalia Davi) and her roommate Ethel’s (Dawn McGee) mountain cabin. While the two locations were clearly different – there was nothing that said “mountain cabin” in Julie and Ethel’s set. Both sets were mainly long thin rectangles, which limited staging to a very narrow plane, and I think other choices could have been made.
However, I wouldn’t let that keep me from seeing the play because the script is excellent and there is some outstanding acting. Especially by the playwright Abby Rosebrock, who also doubles as the actress playing Crystal, Michael’s wife. Her character is a complete revelation from start to finish and I hung on every word she uttered. Likewise, both Dalia Devi and Dawn McGee were excellent. Ms. Devi managed to integrate two seemingly disparate sides of her character’s personality into a believable and sympathetic whole.
Dido Of Idaho By Abby Rosebrock, Directed by Mikhaela Mahony
WITH: Curran Connor (Michael); Dalia Davi (Julie); Layla Khosh (Dido); Dawn McGee (Ethel); Abby Rosebrock (Crystal).
Sound Design by Almeda Beynon; Scene Design by Angelica Borrero; Technical Director, Steve Brenman; Assistant Director, Harrison Densmore; Fight Director, Alex J. Gould; Assistant Stage Manager, Patricia Grabb; Costume Design by Audrey Nauman; Lighting Design by Christine Watananbe; Production Stage Manager, Rachel Winfield. Presented by Ensemble Studio Theatre/Youngblood and the Radio Drama Network Wednesdays through Sundays through April 8, 2018. At the Curt Dempster Theater 545 West 52nd Street, New York City. For Tickets: https://ensemblestudiotheatre.secure.force.com/ticket#details_a0S46000000tjStEAI