How It’s New York:  The play takes place in an unnamed rural American town that has the unreality of the way New Yorkers think about the flyover states.  And of course, it’s premiering here.
How It’s Irish:  Not only is the playwright Irish, his program note informs us the play is actually, about Ireland.  Ireland is sort of a character in it.  Allegorically.

Photo Credit: Britannie Bond. Brian J. Smith, Dan Oreskes, Nina Hellman, and Tobias Segal

Ronan Noone’s play The Atheist had a successful run Off-Broadway in 2008.  He  has won several awards, including the Kennedy Center National Playwrighting Award.   So it was with some excitement that I hurried to see the premiere of Little Black Dress, directed by Ari Edelson, Artistic Director of The Exchange.  After all, there’s no law that writers can only write about their own homes.

 But even if I didn’t know the playwright were from Ireland, I’d know for sure he wasn’t from rural America.  There’s an over-hokiness, small town feel about it that feels generic.   The town is in “Rural Blue River, a Midwestern Anywhere,” the program says (it’s in Kansas, a character tells us).   But even in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, often considered “the play about small town America,”  the narrator gives us the lattitude, longitude, population and history of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. “Anywhere?”  That’s the same as “nowhere.”
In fairness, Noone is aware of this.  Though the script bears the title “American Perspectives #3,” His mysterious note in the program tells us the play is an emigrant play, about “what it feels like to leave your home and family permanently by taking up residence in another country where your dreams can come true.”  But nobody leaves their homeland in the play.  A few characters dream of moving to Florida.  The note also tells us that “the emigrant is Amy, the family left behind is Jimmy Jr., Ireland is Jimmy Sr. and America is the Gigolo.”  

 Little Black Dress is an odd cross between HBO’s Hung (a series about a gigolo), and Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, with a sprinkling of Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World thrown in too. The story is about a 41-year old woman, Amy Beaudreaux, played with heart and strength by Nina Hellman, who yearns for a very different sort of life than the one she has with her high-school sweetheart husband Jimmy (Daniel Oreskes) and her lie-about son Jimmy Jr. (Tobias Segal).  She becomes involved with her son’s friend Charly Prescott (Brian J. Smith), who is running a gigolo service that he sees as a philanthropic endeavor.  The play’s title comes from the picture of a Marc Jacobs dress that Amy has in her box of treasures, along with a video of the film High Society, a picture of South Beach, Florida, and a little silver cross Jimmy Sr. gave her in high school.

In her opening monologue she observes:

“fantasies, if you hold them much longer than say nineteen years, well they stop being fantasies and start to become regrets, and eventually just plain silly.”  

 I expected more insight from a character capable of that thought.  In general the monologues in the play display better writing than the scenes, and the plotting is just bizarre.  The characters  even think in clichés– Amy remembers how she and Jimmy Sr. used to pretend they were characters from Grease (Again, this just really felt to me as something urbanites imagine hicks think…).  Similarly, Noone uses music by Sinatra and Nat King Cole  in the play to invoke nostalgia and yearning; this is both trite and false (she’s 41, not 61; it would make more emotional sense if she and hubby got swoony over the Human League).

Amy, who really is a young-looking 41, neatly rejects her oafish husband’s sexual advances.  Oreskes shines at making his character truly annoying.  But the play goes off the rails after the first two scenes.  Her son Jimmy Jr., holed up in his room, delivers a monologue about how boring the town is that– doesn’t ring true.  Those who aren’t farmers, he says, “work in the rubber factory,”  not naming it.  But worse than this, apart from a desire to create graphic design for video games, he’s a bored, frustrated youth out of central casting.  It doesn’t help that Segal chooses to whine so nasally he’s  hard to understand.  (and it makes no sense for midwestern Jimmy Jr. to the construction “I’m after telling you”.    That’s an Irish construction, and Noone’s ear should have been alert to that– unless, again, it’s evidence that this sin’t really America).

His friend Charly easily lures him into the gigolo business:

Don’t call me a whore, dude, I’m a healer, a samaritan

Besides his belief in sexual healing, Charly’s pretty boring too.  And the Amy who is in love with him, and happy that her son is a gigolo, seems to have no relation to the savvy, Cosmo reading woman we met in the prologue.  The play  devolves into a story about a woman wanting to leave a loutish husgand– Jimmy Sr. shoots the television while drunk and losing at Jeopardy (which doesn’t jibe at all with the guy we met earlier); he has a tantrum about the very idea of divorce (another kind of Irish thing) and Amy backs down.  Until she (SPOILER ALERT) stabs him in the back.

You just have to take this allegorically, because in the literal way it doesn’t make sense.    Jimmy Jr. takes the rap and in prison, the murder of his own father seems to have given him some street cred– but Noone doesn’t develop this very well.  Instead he shows us what happens to Amy after her move to Florida.

The set is full of gadgets and furniture that are mostly not, disappointingly, used.  The cluttered set design is by Dane Laffrey, who also did the costumes.  A huge onstage freezer holds beer, in what appears to be a living room rec room, but an arcade game is never acknowledged (those puppies are expensive, how did this family afford it?).  Similarly Jimmy Jr.’s room is all wired up, but he never seems to have any internet friends or know anything about anything.  Like the plot, it has to be taken symbolically.  Oh, this is cluttered, over-gadgetized America.  Yawn.

BUT.  There’s a sequence near the end of the play in which Amy dances with all three men, in a different style with each, that elegantly demonstrates the turmoil of her troubled mind.  And the final image of her panting after the music stops has power.  Edelson’s direction is at its best here, when the action pulls away from spoken language.   And Noone’s script works best too when it leaves language behind.  The image of young Charly wearing an appliqued patch of chest hair, to appeal to Amy’s lust for Rock Hudson (even though she knows Rock was gay), is hard to forget.   Something is going on beyond the story here.

While I still haven’t figured out how Jimmy Sr. is Ireland, these characters are definitely not in Kansas, anymore.
They never were.
Little Black Dress  runs at the Theatre at St. Clement’s (423 W. 46 St.), through May 28.  Tues at 7, Wed-Sat at 8, Sat and Sun at 3.  Tickets at smartix or 212-868-4444.

Gwen Orel
About the Author

The only New York journalist who writes for both the Forward and Irish Music Magazine.