By Sarah Downs
In the play Sandra, a 90-minute monologue presented at the Vineyard Theatre, the wonderful Marjan Neshat does her darndest to make something compelling out of mediocre material. Alas between the writing and the writing, it is a tough job.
Sandra, Brooklyn cafe owner and all around nice person finds herself at an emotional crossroads. Life has taken on a ‘same old/same old’ quality. Separated from her husband, she hovers in a kind of limbo, either waiting for her life to begin or for the inspiration that would motivate her to make her life begin. Despite saying at one point that she ‘is a New Yorker and nothing scares her’, with that self-conscious bravado we New Yorkers are so proud of (regardless whether or not the statement it is actually true) Sandra hesitates. She is fearful – of change, of the unknown — and perhaps worse, of the known. In other words, she is normal.
The play is a marathon feat of storytelling, following the footsteps of a woman who risks everything in service of a friend. Ethan, Sandra’s gay bestie, the man who represents a daring life she envies, seems to have disappeared in Mexico. As the mystery of his whereabout deepens Sandra is required increasingly to step outside her comfort zone and into danger. In so doing, Sandra unmasks latent persistence, courage and resolve. She rediscovers herself.
An ugly orange dress and old lady sandals reinforce the idea that Sandra is a woman who has given up on herself as an emotional and physical being. Considering Marshat is beautiful, as demonstrated in the striking image on the cover the program, director Leigh Silverman and costume designer Linda Cho must be seeking to emphasize that Sandra is, at first blush, an ordinary woman.
In this journey of transformation we witness Sandra shedding her previous existence in small increments. At moments humorous and deeply moving, Marshat’s portrayal finds the space to breathe within the beats. The writing has its good moments, as in Sandra’s final words, and alas moments of clunkiness, as in the characterizations of different players in the action which lend themselves to confusion. At points the narrative drags. (And seriously, “between he and I”? Come on, a simple spell check would have caught that cringe worthy grammatical error.)
What saves the show is the elegant production design and, of course, Marshat herself. She is an inherently interesting woman. I have seen her previous work, in which she has glowed with delicate intensity. In this piece her glow has been muted. Beautiful, if too fleeting piano interludes composed by Matthew Dean Marsh elide the occasonal scene breaks which give Marshat a moment’s relief. Resonating with a Debussy-esque color and freedom, they are a refuge for the audience as well. A simple, evocative set by Rachel Hauck, hauntingly lit by Thom Weaver, alternately in film noir dramatic intensity and subtle shades of blue, also elevates the material. You know the piece has more to say. The moody blues, as it were, hint at the idea that all of this could be an allegory or even a fantasy. When dream converges with reality, it makes for a very satisfying eipiphany. It’s a long slog to get there, but as Sandra leanrs, the daring is all.
Sandra, written by David Cale, directed by Leigh Silverman. Starring Marjan Neshat. Scenic design by Rachel Hauck, costume design Linda Cho, lighting design by Thom Weaver, and sound design by Kathy Ruvuna.
At the Vineyard Theatre (108 East 15th Street at Union Square East), November 3 – December 11.