Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Not Enough Air"

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

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note: entire contents copyright 2010 by Carl A. Rossi


by Marsha Obolensky
directed by Melia Bensussen

Sophie Treadwell … Anne Gottlieb
Ruth Snyder; Nurse; Arthur Hopkins’ Assistant … Ruby Rose Fox
Young Woman; Zita Johanne; Operator; Jonathon’s Secretary; Telephone Girl; Matron; Courtroom Assistant … Marianna Bassham
Critic 1; Journalist 1; Inspector Carey; Jonathon; Radio Announcer 2; Judd Gray; Clark Gable … Grant MacDermott
Critic 2; Mac; Journalist 2; Defense Attorney; Haddon; George Stillwell … Craig Mathers
Critic 3; Journalist 3; Inspector Coughlin; Harold; Radio Announcer 1; Prosecutor; Fed; Arthur Hopkins … Bill Meleady

As cold and metallic as the clanging prison doors that announce both of its acts, Masha Obolensky’s NOT ENOUGH AIR, in its East Coast premiere at The Nora Theatre, is a beautiful new American play --- as beautiful as Thomas Eakins’ painting “The Gross Clinic” or Frank Norris’ novel “McTeague” or a stroll through the corridors of Alcatraz (been there, done that). Through the eyes of courtroom journalist Sophie Treadwell, Ms. Obolensky gazes upon the Jazz Age murder trial of Ruth Snyder with the same unblinking gaze as that of the photographer who snapped the famous photo of Ms. Snyder being electrocuted; Ms. Obolensky then departs from the tabloid world and plunges into Ms. Treadwell’s tormented soul as she dramatizes the dead woman’s story as MACHINAL, one of those experimental, expressionistic plays of its time that dwindled to a theatre-footnote for decades but has resurfaced, again. You will need to hang on from the start for Ms. Obolensky often resorts to MACHINAL’s staccato, kaleidoscopic style but, blessedly, her Sophie is not the traditional passive onlooker: not only does she fight for her own voice to be heard as well as Ruth’s in the male world of 1920s journalism, she battles with her husband Mac (theirs is a Modern Marriage), with her Ruth-muse, and with her fragile nervous system (the play’s title applies to both women).

Apart from college productions that draws from well-stocked talent-pools, the era of large-cast dramas may well be a thing of the past and we must be content --- for now, anyway --- with the presto-chango type of play with few actors playing many roles and scenery-bits being pushed and pulled into yet another 30-second locale; we can only hope, then, for well-executed productions of such minimalist fare. Melia Bensussen has directed --- no, choreographed! --- NOT ENOUGH AIR in the same Brechtian manner as demonstrated in the Wheelock’s recent A TALE OF TWO CITIES: here, too, the breathlessness of the characters and the narrative’s charge are what propel it on and Ms. Bensussen’s ensemble also doesn’t have time to act; they, too, are endlessly moving forward --- how can you not get caught up in their unsentimental clutches? I must bow to the inevitability of Anne Gottlieb --- to me, Boston’s most beautiful actress --- stepping from leading ladies to character roles such as Sophie but Ms. Gottlieb’s wine-dark intelligence continues to shine through whatever she tackles and she is given golden support by Grant MacDermott, Craig Mathers and the ever-welcome Billy Meleady as the whirling men in Sophie’s life. The evening is dominated, however, by Ruby Rose Fox’s Ruth and Marianna Bassham’s Young Woman. A newcomer to me, Ms. Fox plays Ruth as a tin-hearted cat who only needs a SNAP! to make her turn murderous (how appropriate that this feline wears fur about her shoulders!); that Ms. Fox’s modern-day spitting and clawing never once struck me as anachronistic says something about the Lost Generation’s nihilism after the Great War. Ms. Bassham drifts through Act One in bits and pieces which made me wonder why she was treading water in this play, excellent though it may be; then, in Act Two, Ms. Bassham takes over and endlessly morphs herself without changing her appearance as Sophie’s Ruth-muse, alternately alluring and vampiric, chaste and sapphic --- a brilliant visualization on Ms. Obolensky’s part in depicting to a non-writing audience what writers must go through to give birth to characters who simply will not leave them, alone…the timeless battle between the Mss. Gottlieb and Bassham’s characters proves to be far more harrowing than Ruth in her death-chair, taking her leave in a sudden blackout…

A beautiful, beautiful play, this --- why is it that the best American novels and plays are those of failure and death rather than of success and happy endings? Ah, ours is a blood-soaked country beneath the Red, White and Blue…and Ms. Obolensky ‘fesses up, superbly.

"Not Enough Air" (11 February-14 March)
Central Square Theater, 450 Massachusetts Avenue, CAMBRIDGE, MA
1 (866) 811-4111

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide