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Mary Testa and Ellen McLaughlin
in String of Pearls
(Photo © James Leynse)
Michele Lowe's String of Pearls has nothing to do with Glenn Miller, whose "A String of Pearls" was one of the great hits of the 1940s. Lowe's composition is, however, just as lyrical -- a modern fairy tale that takes Arthur Schnitzler's La Ronde formula and gives it new luster. It's the luster of the genuine pearls that make up a fabulous necklace owned and/or handled by a series of quite varied women. The necklace is literally fabulous, by the way, because it inspires an abundance of Lowe's contemporary fables.

The imaginative play is a treat, immediately notable both for its clever, bittersweet look at what a coveted fashion accessory means to a couple dozen ladies and, just as significantly, for giving four of the town's accomplished players the opportunity to show their considerable range. The string of pearls under observation -- and I'm not convinced that there isn't more than one making the rondes here -- is the one that Beth (Ellen McLaughlin) wants to give daughter Amy (Antoinette LaVecchia) for her wedding day. Beth's husband Ethan brought her the pearls after a sexual encounter between the couple that probably should not be described on a family website.

But now the pearls are missing. They fall into the hands and drop onto the necks of women as diverse as a Tunisian hotel worker (McLaughlin again), who vacuums them up before scooping them up, and a mortician (Sharon Washington), who fails to arrange them on a corpse as she's meant to but, instead, sells them to a friend and uses the money to put her failing mother in a nursing home. One woman, disgusted with the man from whom she has received the pearls, tosses them in the Hudson. Another comes by the pearls when they're discovered inside a Hudson River bass. (You can see that this is the stuff of fairy tales, of moral comments wrapped in fabulation.) The pearls are the catalyst for another woman (McLaughlin yet again) to report a doomed friendship with a bunch of pals lower down in the social register -- a patch of dramaturgy reminiscent of Guy de Maupassant's short story "The Necklace." And then there's the money manager (LaVecchia again) whose judgmental mother (Mary Testa) convinces her that the pearls are fakes.

Further detailing of the route that the pearls take would be to rob Lowe of her magic -- or magic realism, for Lowe is indeed trafficking in a Northern form of South American literary technique. Underpinning her stories (almost all of them delivered as monologues) with fantasy, she manages to ground them in everyday realities. (They're almost exclusively women's realities; men show up in the accounts as shadowy, often unsympathetic, sometimes doltish figures.) Many of the stories concern mother-daughter relationships, although several also concern women's friendships. There's one incipient lesbian affair that comes as a surprise to both of its participants for different, touching reasons.

Since pearls usually mean more to women than men, aside from the occasional stickpin, it's not much of a risk to predict women will have a higher old time at Lowe's play. There's no question that the laughter repeatedly ringing out in the main auditorium of the 59E59 theater complex is from ladies who are obviously delighted to have some of their own beliefs about men and about each other confirmed by Lowe so perceptively and, often, so cheerfully.

And now for some highly enthusiastic words about (in alphabetical order, as billed) LaVecchia, McLaughlin, Testa, and Washington -- all of whom play at least six parts and, therefore, have to come up with at least six different voices and walks. (They also have to push around the panels on Loy Arcenas's abstract set, which features a covered trough of water and generally suggests air and sea.) The performers are immeasurably helped by director Eric Simonson, who clearly understands women (and actresses.) They're further aided by David Zinn's apparently long, long rack of costumes.

LaVecchia, who continually uses her shiny black hair to advantage, is hilarious as a Latina airplane traveler and forthright as daughter Amy, who really isn't that interested in the pearls. The tall, blonde and striking McLaughlin, in a bathing suit and drying herself off with a towel, is extremely touching as a rich woman who doesn't fit into her social class; in a head covering, she's extremely effective as the Tunisian maid. It's always a slight disappointment when Testa -- who has one of New York City's best voices -- doesn't sing, which she doesn't here. But she also happens to be an outstanding utility player, and proves it once again. Testa's on target as a Helena Rubenstein-like business woman, a domineering Jewish mother, a 300-pound lesbian gravedigger, and a culture-vulture cafeteria worker. Washington, built like a clothes-pin, is terrific as the mother of two active children, a mortician sacrificing her youth to an infirm parent, and an obstreperous kid. Strings of pearls to them all, and a triple-strand to Lowe for her gem of a play.

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