Worn Out

You fancy yourself a grown-up, and then something like this happens. There I was, 90 minutes into Intimate Apparel, a pokey but crowd-pleasing drama packing them in at the Unicorn Theatre. The opening-night audience seemed deeply absorbed, but I was antsy, worrying about how all the various plots had yet to resolve themselves.

Then I got smacked back to fifth grade.

“Who washes they britches after they been soiled in your bed?” our hero, Esther, asks a hooker of her acquaintance.

With this line, playwright Lynn Nottage was aiming for turn-of-the-century blues, for an almost lost African-American vernacular. But what came out was more Loretta Lynn than Ma Rainey and more Larry the Cable Guy than either. What came out was something so silly that I pledge here and now to personally scrub the britches of anyone who can say it three times straight without giggling.

I had to fight back a full-tilt laughing fit. I swallowed hard. I tried breathing exercises. For a moment, I even closed my eyes and thought about baseball. No luck. The line clanged in my head, loud and dumb as a cowbell and funnier every second. I imagined it as a country song, as a fortune cookie, as the thing to text everyone I know the next time I’m lit up.

Quickly, though, I was all laughed out. As the show began slouching toward its climax, I just felt a little sad. This play could really have been something.

The story follows Esther, an African-American seamstress in New York City in 1905. The period is lovingly evoked with prim and gorgeous costumes. Lynn King is grand as Esther, a reticent woman whose hard edges disguise deep romantic longing. Esther is illiterate, but she’s in a romantic correspondence with George, a worker from Barbados who’s digging the Panama Canal. She sews and sells corsets, and she turns to her customers to write her letters. At one point, she instructs a client to pen a description of her clothes: “How it feels against your skin. How it’s soft and supple to touch. I ain’t got the words.”

She ain’t? She has supple! A few scenes later, she says, “It was as though God kissed my hands when I first pulled the fabric through the sewing machine.” And: “I laid my head on his chest and listened for the song of cicadas at dusk,” which is gorgeous but irreconcilable with her earlier claim that she lacks words.

Too often, scenes drag on too long, both as written and as acted. Jacqee Gafford brings warmth and humor to the role of Esther’s landlady, but the two of them pause a lot when onstage together. On the night I saw the play, they seemed uncertain of some lines.

Still, if you can surrender to the language and romance and put aside lapses in logic or the rawness of the show’s plot mechanics, Intimate Apparel might sweep you up. As letters from George pour in, Esther cheers up, not quite loosening but perhaps untightening. In King’s eyes, we see hope and hunger but also uncertainty. Esther knows that love is unlikely, but we want her to lunge for it, even though we know it won’t work out. The acting is often stirring, and some scenes scald with their truthfulness. Esther’s wedding night is rich in fear, passion and portent; as she wills herself to trust her new husband (the powerful Mykel Hill), hearts break all across the theater.

But then the story kicks in again. We realize that the husband is a bad man because he doesn’t savor her fabrics. And as we endure the slow destruction of everything that Esther values, Nottage lays it on thick.

Nottage seems to be redressing the theater’s long disinterest in African-American protagonists by setting Esther loose in every genre possible: social realism, then prewar drama, then swoony romance, then tragedy, then ’50s-style social drama emphasizing the nobility of perseverance. All the old beats are here, the twists you see coming a mile away, enlivened by a strong sense of class and race but still run through with more theater than feeling. The result is entertainment instead of art. It’s a beach read or a TV miniseries.

Categories: A&E, Stage