Review: A Woman's Search for a Friend Turns Into a Search for Self in Sandra
Marjan Neshat stars in David Cale's contrived solo play at the Vineyard Theatre.
Five years ago, David Cale's Harry Clarke enjoyed a successful run off-Broadway in a production starring Billy Crudup as a man leading a double life. It began running at the Vineyard Theatre and then later transferred to the Minetta Lane, where it was made into an Audible recording.
Cale's Harry captured the imagination with his sly double-dealings and confident lies, and our reviewer of that show detected in his character echoes of The Talented Mr. Ripley. Cale and the Vineyard are probably hoping to repeat that success with his new solo play, Sandra, directed by Leigh Silverman, who also directed Harry Clarke. But despite a tireless performance by Marjan Neshat, Sandra feels more like Eat Pray Love dressed up as a half-baked thriller.
Protagonist Sandra Jones, wearing a tasteful rust-colored dress (costumes by Linda Cho), is on the outs with her husband. But things are OK. She owns a café in Brooklyn and finds companionship with her gay bestie, Ethan, who is a talented though underappreciated pianist.
Her life begins to go topsy-turvy, however, when Ethan travels to the gay party mecca of Puerto Vallarta and doesn't return. Putting her business into an employee's hands, she begins a series of trips back and forth to Mexico in search of her friend, and while there she meets some people who just might hold the answer to Ethan's whereabouts. Naturally, along the way she falls in love.
The predictability of this 80-minute monologue is just one of its groan-inducing qualities. We meet a sassy gay 70-year-old Southerner, Beauford, who acts as a chirpy source of information for Sandra as she combs the beaches of PV looking for clues. Then a chance encounter with some customers from her café (what are the odds?) puts her in the sights of a devastatingly handsome Italian drifter named Luca. One night with this hunk and she knows her marriage of 13 years is finito.
Of course, the handsome man who tells her all too quickly that he loves her must have some secret, and he does. Neshat tries to keep us rooting for her character with a heartfelt performance as Sandra slowly dredges up the truth about Luca (and in the process learns valuable life lessons about herself) before hurrying us with lightning speed through what happens to her as a result of her discoveries (no spoilers here). In any case, the play has long since stopped being about Ethan's fate in any real sense, so whether he is alive or not seems almost beside the point.
To her credit, Neshat embodies the play's many characters with aplomb, switching easily from Southern accent to Italian, and pronouncing Spanish words like a native speaker one minute and like a foreigner the next. But Silverman has not incorporated much physical action into the scenes. Part of this is due to the confining set (designed by Rachel Hauck), a small, raised platform with a single chair that suggests the lonely circumstances of Sandra's current home.
This puts the onus on Neshat's delivery to keep us attentive. Given the implausibility of the story and the distracting, unanswered questions that crop up throughout (How did Ethan and Luca meet? What's with the hokey messages in bottles?), that proves to be a big ask.
By the end, it's not just Ethan we've stopped caring about. Unlike Harry Clarke, Sandra is an altogether reliable narrator whose words we can take at face value. Without some interesting character flaw for her to wrestle with, her nonstop recitation of facts and events often makes her story read like a newspaper article.
Thank goodness for some creative elements that break up the monologue, such as Thom Weaver's colorful lighting between scenes and Matthew Dean Marsh's lovely piano music (Ethan's compositions), which helps remove the glaze from our eyes. The real standout, however, is Kathy Ruvuna's sound design, which includes a subtle rumbling of the ocean in the background. More often than not it makes us wish we were at the beach instead.