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Little Black Dress

Ronan Noone's new play about a dysfunctional family in Kansas is often ludicrous.

By New York City
Brian J. Smith and Nina Hellman in Little Black Dress
(© Kerry Long)
Brian J. Smith and Nina Hellman in Little Black Dress
(© Kerry Long)
Exposing the most repugnant underbelly of a dysfunctional American family appears to be Ronan Noone's mission in Little Black Dress, now at the Theatre at St. Clement's. But despite the bravura with which he may think he's tackling his subject, the walk he ultimately takes is on the ludicrous side.

His four-hander begins with stagnating wife Amy Beaudreaux (Nina Hellman) opening the box in which she hides the five artifacts that keep her sane: a High Society video for its reminder of Grace Kelly's ideal beauty, a photograph of Miami's South Beach, a Rock Hudson bookmark, a silver cross her husband gave her during their courtship, and a picture of what she regards as the perfect Marc Jacobs black dress.

Her need for these talismans becomes clear when we meet the three men who play the prominent roles in her impoverished Blue River, Kansas: abusive hubby Jimmy (Daniel Oreskes), slacker son Jimmy Jr. (Tobias Segal), and affable Charly Prescott (Brian J. Smith), who is nominally Jimmy Jr.'s buddy, but who also runs a male escort service -- with himself as chief escort and Jimmy Jr. as his sole adjunct rent-boy. And wouldn't you know, Charly's chief client is none other than Amy.

The play might be considered a quickly forgettable miss if not for the fact that it includes too many unfortunately memorable images. There's the sequence in which Amy appears in a floppy gown and blond fright-wig; a scene where Jimmy Sr. is shooting the television because he's fed up with a quiz-show contestant's stupidity, and there's the moment when Charly hopes to arouse the primed-to-be-aroused Amy by sticking on a thick, black chest-hair patch, to name a few.

Under Ari Edelson's fully committed direction, the four cast members do what they can. Perhaps because Noone's portrait of the desperate housewife is so far-fetched, there's little Hellman is truly able to transcend. Segal successfully presents the late-adolescent angst that's fast becoming his specialty. Oreskes' dictatorial Jimmy contains the apt amount of defensive masculine swagger, and Smith gets closest to something original with his cheerfully amoral Charly.

The split-level home in which set and costume designer Dane Laffrey has the family hashing out their intensifying squabbles is also a puzzlement. Is the refrigerator in the stage-left kitchen area that lies on its side meant to be a freezer? Or is it intended to conjure thoughts of the metaphorical coffin Noone sees the American family already lying in?

From time to time sound designer Bart Fasbender pipes in familiar ballads crooned by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Nat King Cole. They're intended to underline the soul-crushing difference between fantasy and reality, but in the long run, they best serve as welcome respites from the overwrought silliness depicted on stage.


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