Melissa Gilbert Goes Solo in My Brilliant Divorce
Life after marriage gets celebrated and condemned in this one-woman show.
My Brilliant Divorce, now making its New York premiere at the New Ohio Theatre, revolves around Rachel Lipsky Haringay, played by Golden Globe Award nominee Melissa Gilbert of Little House on the Prairie. Gilbert has journeyed far from Minnesota farm country for this role: Rachel is a Jewish New Yorker living in London. Her husband, an English accountant with an "irritatingly round" head, has just walked out on her and her daughter. His departure is the first of Rachel's many woes in this solo play by Geraldine Aron.
The others — including the death of her mother, the moving out of her daughter, the loss of a job, and two bad dates — are also painful, though not in the way you'd expect. Aron exploits much of her heroine's misery for laughs. For instance, in a moment of desperation, Rachel calls a suicide hotline and complains that if she kills herself, "no one will mourn my passing except Axl, my dog. Then again, I suppose I could take him with me." The line attendant's response? Threatening to contact animal welfare services because she's never heard of anything so selfish.
The show's stereotypes and caricatures are even more discomfiting. Rachel's mother, who kvetches about her granddaughter not knowing the difference between a latke and a knish, sees the divorce as an opportunity for Rachel to find a nice Jewish boy. Then there's the divorce lawyer with Bell's palsy whose lines Gilbert (playing the lawyer and 16 other characters, including Rachel) delivers with one side of her mouth sagging open.
That impression is a low point in a generally buoyant performance. Gilbert's ease onstage gets her laughs out of decrepit jokes: At first she's 39, then 38, 44, and 47 before finally admitting to 51. She relies more on charisma than range, however — a drawback in a solo show with so many characters. Changes from one character to another are usually signaled through her voice, not her body. While she does credible British, Scottish, and Polish accents, the overall effect is closer to new characters appearing in an audiobook than on a stage.
The production's design doesn't add much to Gilbert's performance. At its best (Jessica M. Kasprisin's lighting), it's unobtrusive. At its worst (Eileen Connolly's props), it's distracting. Why, in a play whose main character becomes an Airbnb host, does she use a rotary phone? And why, even more bafflingly, is she counting the years on an abacus built into a hand truck? Director Aedín Moloney doesn't provide any rationale for these quirks, and there's a bigger concern than anachronism: What is this show saying about women?
Though titled My Brilliant Divorce, it presents a woman destabilized by her husband's departure. Consumed by longing, she goes on dates, waxes suicidal, spies on "Roundhead," and tries to save their marriage. She has a momentary epiphany, claiming to enjoy her own company, but this happiness turns into a fantasy about meeting a man in a cable-knit sweater while flying a kite. They follow it up into the heavens, aptly symbolizing how detached Aron's play is from reality. For all her charm, Gilbert can't anchor it.