Elisabeth Gray in
Wish I Had a Sylvia Plath
(© Stephen Stoneberg)
Elisabeth Gray in
Wish I Had a Sylvia Plath
(© Stephen Stoneberg)
Sylvia Plath's life literally flashes before her eyes in the final seconds before her death in Edward Anthony's cleverly conceived solo show, Wish I Had a Sylvia Plath, now at 59E59 Theaters. But calling it a "solo show" may be misleading, even though the dazzling Elisabeth Gray is the only performer onstage.

Gray's character is actually called Esther Greenwood -- the protagonist of Plath's semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar -- and she spends lots of time interacting with celluloid characters in a series of short black-and-white silent films (well executed by John Framanesh-Boccaa) representing the images swirling around in Plath's head. Not only does Gray voice the words of those characters, she also "dubs" them to the movements of the actors' mouths.

Indeed, there's plenty of whimsy to be found onstage. The play begins with Esther pulling her head out of Olson the Magic Oven, which soon starts talking to her. (Gray also voices the appliance's monosyllabic gibberish.) As she hallucinates on her own life, Esther takes on the persona of a cooking-show hostess instructing viewers on "preparing a perfect life." Recipes include: "Fifty-two Liar Lasagna" and "Black Tar Brain Souffle."

Looking both fetching and absurd in electrocuted hair and shiny red dress and pumps (a la Wizard of Oz), Gray jumps full throttle into different moods and characters, imbued with abundant doses of Anthony's wit and poetic ear for alliteration. Esther mourns that while her husband fools around, she's "Bloated and bulging here with babies and breast milk and bulk," and wishes she had "foretold his phallic fortune."

Anthony, Gray, and director Daniel S. Zimbler are to be commended for having fun with their subject without minimizing Plath's struggle -- mixing irreverent humor and pathos adroitly. Still, what emerges over the course of 80 minutes is a rather conventional portrait of Plath as neglected wife, overburdened mother, and frustrated poet stuck trying to run a household while her husband, Ted Hughes, focuses on his poetry.

Regretfully, we don't get to hear a verse of Plath's own poetry -- in order to hear her voice, one must go see Plath's only play, Three Women, running concurrently at 59E59.