At 75 years old, Meryl Kowalski (Dianne Wiest) is finally free of her physically abusive husband. Voiceover accompanied by before and after images of a squashed fly vividly illustrate the heroine’s feelings. Determined to make the most of what’s left of her life, Meryl abandons her whiny, drug addicted daughter (Kristin Sieh) and husband Stanley’s corpse: “body in a box, box in hole, easy peasy,” she instructs half way out the door on her way to Hollywood. “Within a year, I’ll rise to fame and fortune playing matriarchs and queens with Benzedrine (amphetamines) in their pockets.” It’s 1985.
On a (subtly depicted) train that seems instead to be bound for Moscow (note ersatz Russian accents), Meryl is haunted by Stanley. A conductor named Constantine seems enamored. “I want you to fuck me back inside myself,” she states. Carpe diem. He apparently does. We’re clearly not in Kansas anymore. Looking like a bag lady, she breaks into an agent’s office (Josh Hamilton) and holds him at gunpoint, manifesting false reactions to prove acting chops. He warily agrees to take her on. “I’m durable,” Meryl insists. Red herrings include past acting history, institutionalization, and a brain injury.
Eric Berryman, Kristen Sieh, Carmen M. Herlihy (students) and Dianne Wiest (Meryl)
The wanna-be star is sent to a class called “Acting Like a Maniac” run by evangelical, cult-leaderish Hugo (Josh Hamilton, more credible in this role). Instead of the long shot she seems, Meryl is able to codify everything the teacher densely tries to communicate. “She creates from inside the source,” he appreciatively remarks. Other students are surprised but welcoming. That everyone tells her she must change her first name because of Ms. Streep is a cheap shot. A drunk group karaoke is nifty. When her frankly awful life lurches out during a biographical acting exercise, Hugo deems her worthy of a film. There are to be eight Meryls at various stages. She, of course, demands to play them all.
Josh Hamilton – Meryl’s agent; acting teacher, Hugo
Running through the constant challenge of what’s real or imagined are ghosts of her husband and father (one speaking through others, the other represented by a hat and coat on a rack) as well as the caring actual presence of sister Charlize (a splendid Johanna Day) who assumes Meryl has dementia and does what she can to get her medically tested. The fine line Char never quite crosses is deftly written and dramatized.
Playwright John J. Caswell, Jr. rescues and elevates a life seemingly beyond repair by offering redemption, even success in a way that keeps us off balance. Theater of the absurd, of which this is arguably a contemporary example, generally keeps one arms’ length from connection. Here we get involved with the heroine. Question for the author: Where is Meryl the week between arrival and landing at Charlize’s door?
Johanna Day (Charlize) and Dianne Wiest (Meryl)
Dianne Wiest is marvelous. The actress cuts through stylization like a salmon swimming upstream.
Director Rachel Chavkin herds diverse elements like feral cats into a storyline we follow, riveted with furrowed brow. Ancillary characters are solid. Scenes shift seamlessly. Tech illuminates and/or teases.
Video and projection design (David Bengali) is some of the best I’ve seen. Images are well chosen, moving panels fluent. Splintered visuals reinforce narrative rather than distract. Use of scale is aesthetic and dramatic.
Hand in hand with excellent scenic design (Ricardo Hernandez), moving Mondrian-like panels, lighting design (Alan Edwards), and sound design (Leah Gelpe), collaborative approach here is accomplished. That we’re on team Meryl every step of the way is a testament to a production that might otherwise have drowned its story in tech.
Costumes by Brenda Abbandandolo work well. Meryl’s clothing is just right.
Scene Partners by John J. Caswell, Jr.
Directed by Rachel Chavkin
Photos by Carol Rosegg
Through December 17, 2023
The Vineyard Theatre
108 East 15th Street