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Intimate Apparel

Viola Davis and Russell Hornsby
in Intimate Apparel
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
There was a time when plays known as "vehicles" were commonplace -- a time when the play wasn't always the thing but, rather the actor was. These pieces were simply opportunities for performers to strut their stuff. Ethel Barrymore or Laurette Taylor would appear regularly in such vehicles; Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt would open in New York and then tour in plays such as Amphitryon 38 or Noël Coward's Point Valaine, which no one would seriously consider reviving now. Possibly the last actress to appear in what could be called vehicles was Julie Harris, who showed up once a year or so as late as the '60s in such items as The Warm Peninsula and the boulevard comedy Forty Carats.

Lynn Nottage clearly didn't intend Intimate Apparel as a vehicle but the play does serve as a showcase for Viola Davis, who won a Tony for King Hedley II and who adapts her personality to the various roles she plays as if she were molding clay. Often seen arriving on stage as if shot from a cannon and ready to slam explosively into an August Wilson aria, Davis first appears in Intimate Apparel as if pushed on stage against her will. She's playing Esther Mills, a 35-year-old seamstress in 1905 Manhattan who can do anything with actual fabric but little with the fabric of her life.

In the course of her trials, Esther meets and marries a Barbados laborer named George Armstrong (Russell Hornsby). They don't meet cute; instead, they meet almost against Esther's better judgment. He writes her from Panama where he's one of the thousands of men building the canal. Encouraged by her rich client Mrs. Van Buren (Arija Bareikis) and her hooker friend Mayme (Lauren Velez) but not encouraged by her landlady. Mrs. Dickson (Lynda Gravátt), Esther begins a correspondence with George and is soon won over by his epistolary blandishments. At the same time, she doesn't realize her attraction to Mr. Marks (Corey Stoll), the orthodox Jew from whom she habitually buys fabrics.

Once Esther and George are man and wife -- a union noted at the first-act curtain by a supertitle that reads "Unidentified Negro Couple, ca. 1905 -- their troubles begin. He doesn't seem so much interested in Esther as he is interested in the money that she has sewn into her quilt, money that's earmarked to open a beauty parlor. There are indications that he's also interested in Mayme, who's still residing at Mrs. Dickson's boarding-house/bordello, out of which Esther moved to set up housekeeping with George. (Esther's rooms and those of the others have been elegantly designed by Derek McLane and are suggested by furniture gliding within fake prosceniums of mottled mirrors.) Before long, Esther's happiness is stained, as is that of the beautiful but childless Mrs. Van Buren. Though she at last recognizes Mr. Marks's importance to her, Esther accepts a future likely to be filled with more toil than triumph.

The playwright's intentions are as plain as the nose on Esther's plain face. That first-act curtain sign calling attention to an "unidentified Negro couple" is one of the more blatant hints: Nottage is shining a spotlight on the anonymous African-American who, by the turn of the 20th century, had emerged from slavery's yoke but still experienced the pains of transition to obscure citizenhood. Esther Mills, running up exquisite undergarments at her sewing machine, is meant to be an emblem of black workers making unsung contributions to their country. She's one thread in the rich American fabric.

But while Nottage's intentions may be noble, her execution isn't as seamless as some of Esther's beaded and ruffled corsets look to be. (Esther also confects a breathtaking wedding-dress for herself from silk that Mr. Marks insists she accept; everything she creates is actually designed by Catherine Zuber with an eye and a hand for couturier refinement.) The dramatist is awkward in her plotting and more than a bit obvious about it; the quilt, for instance, is such a conspicuous device that no audience member will be surprised at who eventually ends up in possession of its concealed contents. Nor will anyone be shocked at the identity of Mayme's new boyfriend. Indeed, much of Intimate Apparel proceeds predictably, with its heroine merely enduring like Masha in Uncle Vanya.

Well, the play isn't entirely predictable. Using a Cyrano de Bergerac/Christian or John Alden/Miles Standish device, Nottage runs the risk of cheating her audience. She certainly suggests in Act I that George Armstrong, who blows in with a blast of industrial revolutionary steam, is something he turns out not to be in Act II. Why no one -- not director Dan Sullivan nor consulting dramaturg Jerry Patch nor anyone else -- called her on this authorial gaffe is a puzzlement. (Would Nottage condone a similar flaw in the work of any student whom she's currently lecturing at the Yale School of Drama?)

Viola Davis and Lauren Velez in Intimate Apparel
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Getting back to Viola Davis, let it be said that her performance is almost a metaphor for the work of an expert seamstress: She's taken the material handed her, which is of less than first-rate quality, and has made a silk purse from it. Under Sullivan's direction, her moods are like moire or taffeta, shifting color under Allen Lee Hughes's lights. From the moment when she's discovered pedaling, she evidences the curious strength of the timid and the unexpected beauty of the plain. And it's not just her face that consistently indicates what Esther is thinking and feeling: The way that Davis firmly grasps some objects and delicately hesitates to touch others is also commanding.

Sullivan is also diligent in directing the other actors, deriving from them well-rounded performances where two-dimensional portrayals might have prevailed. Russell Hornsby as George Armstrong (the actor does have strong arms) manages the character's transformation better than the playwright does; he's eloquent when reciting the letters that he sends Esther and loutish when he begins to fail her. Arija Bareikis is vulnerable as Mrs. Van Buren, and her figure is as shapely as the dress forms that designer McLane has positioned here and there. Also shapeley is Lauren Velez, who brings much to the role of Mayme the prostie. Lynda Gravátt has gravitas and sass as Mrs. Dickson, while Corey Stoll's Mr. Marks is understanding and humane.

Intimate Apparel takes place during a period when ragtime was the rage. In the spare moments that Mayme has between clients, she plays a rag of her own composition. (Harold Wheeler is credited with the ditty; sound designer Marc Gwinn pipes in "There'll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight" and similar songs before each of the two acts begins.) Of course, this musical genre is pertinent in that Esther is in the rag trade, but one wishes that the play she adorns weren't quite so ragged.