note: entire contents copyright 2010 by Sheila Barth
Everything is timing, they say, and in Masha Obolensky’s riveting play, “Not Enough Air,” time fuses the past with a later past, consciousness and sub-consciousness, reality and imagination. If that sounds confusing - it should. This play isn’t a clear-cut mystery or psychological meandering. It’s about real people, a play within a play, a haunting picture of the past that conjures up yellow journalism and legal wrongdoing, tinged with gender bias. Obolensky,who is also a director, performer, teacher at Northeastern University and Middlesex Community College, and an MFA playwriting student at Boston University, has dug into the past, to the 1927 sensational murder trial of Long Island socialite Ruth Snyder, who was accused, with her lover Judd Gray, of murdering her husband, and was electrocuted.
Obolsensky also explores journalist-turned-playwright Sophie Treadwell’s investigation of that trial, on which she based her successful 1928 play, “Machinal,” that consumed her while writing it. She suffered from a condition known as neurasthenia.
Anne Gottlieb as the perspicacious Treadwell is riveting in her dogged pursuit of the truth, in which she struggles, mentally and physically, with images of former accused murderesses and their grasp on her psyche. Marianna Bassham vividly conjures up the ghostly, eerie, young lovely muses of Treadwell’s tortured mind; and Ruby Rose Fox as Ruth Snyder waxes from vain and plotting to raising questionable doubt, given that she’s subject to blackouts, or fits - like Treadwell is. Bassham, Fox, and male stars Grant MacDermott, Craig Mathers and Billy Meleady play multiple roles admirably, changing personalities with a flick of a cigarette, a tip of a hat. Besides portraying Judd Gray, McDermott is a critic, journalist, inspector, radio announcer, Clark Gable and others. Mathers portrays Treadwell’s husband-sportsman magazine writer, Mac, yet another critic, journalist, defense attorney, Treadwell’s friend, and an associate; and Meleady is a third critic, journalist, radio announcer, prosecutor, and others. Amazingly, nobody is confusing in these multiple roles.
Tension is tantamount in this taut, two-hour, two-act performance that gives the audience no respite, but hits with striking blows at Treadwell’s interaction with Snyder, trying to gain her confidence to learn the truth. She approaches the media, her young law partner, Jonathon, and legal representatives, seeking the truth as the media hypes the story to a titillating frenzy. Meanwhile, Treadwell’s husband, (Mathers), becomes increasingly concerned about her fearing she’ll have a breakdown. He wrestles with her and, unknowingly, her imaginary muse, while radios and newspapers blare with Snyder’s conviction and electrocution. Treadwell loses her struggle to remain objective, uninvolved, but she teaches everyone a lesson about justice, fairness, and women’s struggle for independence. Melia Bensussen’s directing is superb; Eric Levenson’s set is minimalist yet effective; John R, Malinowski’s lighting creates dramatic shadows and prescience; Gail Astrid Buckley’s costumes are wonderfully historic; but sound designer David Remedios overdoes clanging jail cell doors and banging, rendering them repetitive and irritating.
BOX INFO: New England premiere of two-act drama, written by local playwright Masha Obolensky, appearing through March 14 with the Nora Theater Co. at Central Square Theater, 450 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge. Showtimes are Wednesday, Thursday, 7:30 p.m.; Friday, Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. Tickets, $35; seniors, $25; students with valid IDs, $20; student rush day of performance, $15. Call 866-811-4111, visit online at www.centralsquaretheater.org, or the Box Office.