At the beginning of Sylvan Oswald’s Nightlands, receiving its world premiere from New Georges at HERE, Netta Klein (Polly Lee) stands in a spotlight and declares something about living in those titular spaces. Making the statement, she suggests what’s to follow will be portentous, but as the play unfolds, it would more accurately be described as pretentious.
Set in what’s described as “a memory of North Philadelphia” in the early 1960s, the play centers on Netta, unhappily married to postal-clerk Russ (Michael Milligan), who is looking for gratifying ways to express her discontented self. She thinks she might have found her answer in African-American access-radio astrologer Ivy Silver (Rachel Leslie), who has her own off-the-air problems with rebellious son Mason (Hubert Point-Du Jour) — who coincidentally is also a postal worker, serving under the volatile, repeatedly-denied-promotion Russ.
While Netta initially goes to Ivy for astrological readings, she quickly ups her goal to learning the craft, and is eventually invited onto Ivy’s radio show as a co-host. Furthermore, she inaugurates a clandestine interracial lesbian love affair with Ivy, which eventually leads nowhere but heightened verbally abusive conflict with Russ. Also involved in the plot, evidently for comic relief, are Netta’s gossipy wig-business boss Eileen Koch (Linda Marie Larson) and two members of a women’s group she runs, Marla Schwarzbaum and Henny Myers (played by a wig-wearing Milligan and Point-Du Jour).
The meaning of Oswald’s drama escapes easy explanation. It may be concerned with suburban discontent under the uncaring stars, or perhaps the playwright is attempting to establish how all things are ephemeral.
Sadly, after watching the shortish two-act proceedings , the audience has cause for further chagrin. Just before fade-out, the cast lines up to call into question the truth of what has just transpired. The stern looks they affect here are especially off-putting, since these are the same players who, under Tamilla Woodard’s direction, have been no more than adequate as they’ve delivered their dialogue and have had to mime some of their activities.
As that five-person confrontation with the audience occurs — designer Stephen Arnold even bringing up the auditorium lights — the sole reaction assailed spectators are likely to experience is not dawning revelation but rising ire. It’s no help — and no fun — to be informed that the tiresome relationships just put forward as if in a larger illuminating context could in the final analysis be meaningless. Or that meaninglessness is profoundly meaningful. It isn’t.