Julie Fitzpatrick, Vanessa Wasche, and Eric Bryant
in The Pillow Book
(© Mike Klar)
Julie Fitzpatrick, Vanessa Wasche, and Eric Bryant
in The Pillow Book
(© Mike Klar)
Sometimes it's hard to know which is worse: a bad play by someone whose talent doesn't lend itself to playwriting, or a bad play by someone with the basic requirements who deliberately abuses them. Anna Moench's The Pillow Book, now at 59E59 Theatres, is an example of the latter -- and I think more egregious -- type of play.

While Moench gives signs she can compose credible dialogue and even has meaningful insights into the complexities of human relationships, in this intermissionless 80-minute exercise, she's obscured these signs by couching them in a calculatedly ambiguous -- and therefore precious and pretentious -- context.

John (Eric Bryant) and Deb (Julie Fitzpatrick) are a couple who appear to have been married for a while and are talking over whether to become pregnant. Already there's a problem, since their discussion-bordering-on-argument feels like a chat they would have had long before the play begins.

Intercut with Deb's continuing insistence that the very idea of pregnancy disgusts her -- and also with her attitudes towards the dog John brought home without first consulting her -- there's John's interaction with African tour guide Deborah (Vanessa Wasche).

But who is this Deborah, and what is John to her? Maybe she's Deb before John marries her. Or maybe they are an altogether different couple. As The Pillow Book winds its circuitous, often torturous, way, Moench tosses other obstacles in the path of accessible audience comprehension.

For example, from time to time, the actors -- all of whom do their utmost under David F. Chapman's sporting direction -- are asked to play other characters: Fitzpatrick momentarily becomes a Bronx-accented bed-bug exterminator; Wasche is a ski instructor attending to John's fractured femur; and Bryant turns on a theatrical dime into an airport security guard whom Deborah seduces. Moreover, the actors are also occasionally asked to each deliver an indecipherable monologue that Moench possibly thinks is poetic.

On the square playing area the work calls for -- and which set and lighting designer Maruti Evans supplies in the form of a gray container suggesting an empty (and infantilizing) sandbox -- there are seven pillows. Six of them are placed on and in the box and are constantly shifted in the evident service of indicating changing environments, while the seventh pillow is suspended above the unit and eventually removed from its lofty (iconic?) perch, at which time it's revealed to be blood-stained.

Does the pillow represent a miscarriage? Or are the blotches just dried varnish? Who can say? Moench refuses to, and by that time, audiences may likely to have stopped caring about the playwright's intentions.