By Sarah Downs

Relationships are never easy.  For the six women in Shadows, written and directed by Anthony M. Laura it is ever so.  Alas, we don’t really learn why.  The actresses do their best, but between the lackluster writing and near nonexistent direction, they inevitably become a bit artificial.  It’s hard for any actor to be fully natural when simultaneously trying to bridge awkward, emotional gaps in the script and find new ways to say the same thing repeatedly.  As a result the piece comes off as amateurish and at times unbearable.

This play in two acts is really a tale of two plays, one which fails and the other which has possibilities.  Act One plays one note, over and over again.  However, as Act Two progresses, an original story line appears.  We finally arrive at the kernel of inspiration for this play, one which has real potential.  How an author could bury the lede 3 hours in is beyond me.  Still, better late than never.

A two-hour first Act is not just indulgent, it is intolerable.  This isn’t Verdi.  Act I consists of a thinly written series of vignettes strung together with lots of lights up/lights down scene work.  Despite the time spent, it feels as if very little happens.  Lindsy, a former pop star is planning a comeback.  She’s in love; her girlfriend is diagnosed with a life threatening illness; Lindsy and her sister Arianna fight.  The play’s narrative self indulgence extends to the direction, which drags, leaving the women to manage clumsy pauses, obvious line readings, and do a lot of sighing.  Laura also limits most of the action to the love seat front and center, despite there being greater playing space in Hayley Wallenfeldt’s warm, homey set.  Indeed, the production design makes promises the play can’t keep.  Yang Yu’s lighting elevates the production, creating tableaux with whimsical starry nights, pastel pinks and yellows, and intense greens.   Similarly, Philip Lauto’s Debussy-esque piano music feels almost out of place in its sophistication and subtlety.

Burdening these actresses with little to do but smile at each other, cuddle or fight is, frankly, criminal. Add to that the lack of direction and we have six women standing around with no idea where to look or what to do with their hands. It has apparently dawned on no-one that in a stage full of props, the actors should actually touch them.  As a result,  Katia Mendoza in the marathon central role of Lindsy resorts to a lot of fidgeting, desperate to inject some buoyancy to the leaden writing.  Furthermore, Laura has cluttered the drama with the cutesy device of having Lyndsy talk to the audience, undermining her performance with frequent interruptions as she does two jobs — telling us what happens and attempting to show us.  Mendoza is a good actress, but with her attention split in this manner, she cannot escape being self-conscious and mannered.
Annie-Grace Payne in the role of Lyndsy’s girlfriend Kensley has a refreshing sweetness, bringing a lightness to the stage.  As Lyndsy’s tense, hard-bitten sister Arianna, Annette Berning is intense and committed, but it is not enough to breathe life into an underwritten role.  She also spends the entire play with her arms hanging stiffly at her sides.  I think it’s a choice, and it could be an interesting one if she were the only one whose arms dangled in this manner.  The actress who brings the most fully formed personality to the piece is Mari Blake, as Lindsy’s friend Tatum.  The action comes alive when she steps onstage.  As Jessa, the 13 year old pop star in the making,  Alexandra Rooney is coltish and sly in that way an oblivious, ambitious teen whose ego been inflated by yes-men can be.  Rounding out the cast, Susan Neuffer is wasted in the role of family friend (and doctor?) Stella.
After Act I’s interminable writing, we get to Act II, and it’s as if we’ve walked in on a totally different play. Actual scenes flow into each other, more interaction among the characters occurs, and the narrative begins to gel into an arc.  The actors are still left to act in a vacuum, but with fewer lights up/lights down interruptions, they are given a chance for some continuity.  They begin to breathe.  We also finally get to the essential point of the piece – identity, and the power of love.  Sadly, the play begins right as it ends.
Shadows, written, directed and produced by Anthony M. Laura.  With Katia Mendoza, Annie-Grace Payne, Annette Berning, Alexandra Rooney, Mari Blake and Susan Neuffer.  Set design by Hayley Wallenfeldt, lighting design by Yang Yu, projection design by Qixin Zhang, sound design by Trey McGee, original music by Philip Lauto.
Presented by the A.R.T. at the Jeffrey and Paula Gural Theatre, (502 West 53rd St.), December 1st – 16th.  For tickets go to www.shadowstheplay.com.  Run time three hours with one 15-minute intermission.