As the play begins, Fefu (Nikki Alikakos) is railing against women to her friends Cindy (Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris) and Christina (Courtney Reynolds). The businesslike Cindy reacts as though she's heard it all before, while the delicate Christina cringes at nearly every word. After Fefu's done with this particular harangue, she lets her guests in on a cat-and-mouse game that she plays with her unseen husband; it consists of her firing a rifle at him and trying to guess whether it was loaded with bullets or blanks. Pretty soon, the rest of the gang shows up at the door: A showboat named Emma (Margarita Martinez) makes a glamorous entrance in traditional Indian robes; the repressed Sue (Nicola Riske) and Paula (Sasha Cucciniello) enter tentatively; and the handicapped Julia (Elizabeth Howard) is rolled in on a wheelchair that she may or may not need as a result of an injury that Fefu may or may not have inflicted.
Confused yet? The play, known for its disorienting tactics, ups the ante one step further by dividing the stage and the audience into four parts. The characters disperse and we follow each of them into separate spaces as eavesdroppers on their mini-dramas. In the kitchen, two of the women are headed toward a love affair; in the bedroom, one makes a feverish prophecy of events to come; outside of the house, a conversation turns to sex and gardening; and so on. The events unravel with little logic or time for reflection, and the playwright has cautioned against trying to "figure out" her play: "If art is to inspire us, we must not be too eager to understand."
That doesn't make the style of the play any less well defined, but many facets of this production working against a faithful presentation of Fornes' vision. Although the actresses are very capable, it's difficult to believe -- in spite of the period costumes and set design -- that the twentysomethings onstage are society women living in the New England of the 1930s. The relatively small playing area at 45 Below is difficult to convert into four stages, but director Krissy Smith has ably taken on this challenge: The action flows smoothly on the matchbox spaces, and the pacing of each segment feels natural even though they all finish at the same time. Strangely, the play seems to drag most when the action is taking place on a single stage; some of the cast members take too many dramatic pauses, stripping the text of its absurd comedy.
The enthusiasm of the company members largely makes up for their miscasting in terms of age. Alikakos's Fefu has an upright posture and is full of breezy confidence. Martinez wows the audience with her passion and energy as Emma, the world traveler who imparts life lessons and cosmopolitan wisdom to anyone who will listen. (As it turns out, the actress herself has been involved with theater around the world -- as far away as Bangkok.) Howard, as Julia, displays an enormous emotional range in her transition from troubled victim to spurned Cassandra. The rest take on their more modest roles skillfully. Overall, this is an earnest if flawed production of a fascinating play.