Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Not Enough Air"

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note: entire contents copyright 2010 by Larry Stark

"Not Enough Air"

by Masha Obolensky
Directed by Melia Bensussen

Set Design by Eric Levenson
Costume Design by Gail Astrid Buckley
Lighting Design by John Malinowski
Sound Design by David Remedios
Choreography by Melody Riffin Ward
Assistant Director/Dramaturg Justine Spingler
Assistant Stage Manager Cassie M. Seinuk
Stage Manager Katie Aillinger

Sophie Treadwell
Young Woman, Zita Johanne, Operator, Jonathon's Secretary,
telephone Girl, Matron, Courtroom Assistant
Ruth Snyder,
Nurse, Arthur Hopkins' Assistant
Critic 1, Journalist 1, Inspector Carey, Jonathon,
Radio Announcer 2, Judd Gray, Clark Gable
Critic 2, Mac, Journalist 2,
Defense Attorney, Haddon, George Stillwell
Critic 3, Journalist 3, Inspector Coughlin, Harold,
Radio Announcer 1, Prosecutor, Fred, Arthur Hopkins

They came to be known as "Sob-Sisters" --- every big-city newspaper paid one or two female reporters to find a "women's angle" on everything from flower-shows to husband-murderers. Masha Obolensky has created a stunning portrait of perhaps the classic model for these over-achieving workaholic "modern women": the journalist/playwright Sophie Treadwell. Solidly, cinematically directed by Melia Bensussen, the Nora Theatre's energetic cast captures the busy breakneck chaos of the "yellow journalism" '20s, when hemlines bounced from ankle to knee and marriage began at times to look like a flapper-trapping jail. At the center of this whirligig-story is Anne Gottlieb as this complicated writer deciding that in order to understand women's world, she has to write a play about it. And in this play about making a play, The Nora Theatre Company has a must-see hit on its hands.

As the play opens, Treadwell appears just another experienced, ambitious crime-reporter jealously guarding her by-line after a bout of neurasthenia. She's not to cover her third big husband-murderer trial --- though the young reporter who does (Grant MacDermott) gets her a ticket to the trial. Ruby Rose Fox playing Ruth Snyder is a small, pale, pretty woman who fascinates Treadwell, talking to her briefly as a needed friend, switching her plea from innocent to guilty to innocent, and ultimately becoming the first woman electrocuted for murder. Stitched through all this is Treadwell's "open-marriage" with equally experienced and ambitious sports-reporter Mac McGeehan (Craig Mathers), who supports her independence while worrying that her obsession with the Snyder case could bring on another breakdown.

Playwright and director have handled this material in a cascade of bits and scenes, moving center-of-attention around a big, square space and up across an overhead catwalk at the back of the stage area --- the way cinematographers cut from scene to close-up. Actors leap into dozens of brief scenes, talk behind radio-sets, handle telephones. Billy Meleady goes from a theater-critic to inspector to prosecutor to the playwright's agent all over the stage, for each line or speech becoming an entirely new person.

One persona grows more consistently throughout the play, however. Through Act One, Treadwell talks repeatedly with Ruth Snyder, but in the Second Act she talks more and more with Marianna Bassham, playing either the spirit of her play, or the Snyder like-a-look character in what became the classic expressionist drama "Machinal". Again and again bits of dialogue from Ruth's mouth reappear in Bassham's, until in the final scene --- seen significantly from the back --- Bassham emerges as the actress playing the woman-murderer in a word-for-word re-ceation of Treadwell's play.

For long-time theater-junkies "Not Enough Air" may appear as the realistic flip-side of the musical "Chicago": both plays deal with women who murder husbands or lovers, and the way lawyers and the press handle such famous trials. And both plays, different as day and night, are drenched in "All That Jazz!" from the '20s.

( a k a larry stark )

"Not Enough Air" (11 February - 14 March)
@ Central Square Theatre, 450 Massachusetts Avenue, CAMBRIDGE MA
1 (617) 576-9278

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide