I quite liked the premiere production of Amy Hartman's mad, shockingly moving dark comedy. But because CP has already done a formal review (and because the run ended last weekend anyway), I'll just write about what I wanted to write about from the moment I saw it: David Maslow's inspired set.
It's not just that the playing space was claustrophobically small and wackily cluttered -- it was representing a small-town Texas bomb shelter, after all (more accurately, a basement with pretensions to bomb-shelterdom). It's the rumpus room for a half-nuts housewife held hostage by a dubious and anxiety-ridden young woman who's upset (it turns out) over the college professor who's married to one but sleeping only with the other.
Maslow nailed the space from its parquet floor and dark paneling to the exposed ductwork and mock joists hanging above. The centerpiece was a quilted single bed. But what your eyes wanted to search relentlessly were the shelves, full of unsettling quirks, from the mason jars full of mysterious, lozenge-hued liquids to the rows and piles of paperback self-help books that figure into the plot. And the cardboard boxes labeled stuff like "4th of July, 1977" (riffing on something else in the script) and another box full of suggestively empty champagne bottles. The level of detail was such that through the set's lone door was visible an anteroom with a well-used water-heater that was nowhere in the script, just there for atmosphere. Other nice touches: the scant lace curtains on the high, tiny window; the cactus visible outside it; the empty antique birdcage high atop one set of sheet-metal shelves.
The genius of Maslow's scenic design, however, lay not in the cinematic, tactile verisimilitude of what was onstage, but rather in the set's highly theatrical relationship to the seating around it. While upstage was defined by two full-height walls, the remaining two faces of the square -- the ones facing the audience -- were bordered by half-walls we had to peer slightly over. It suggested the boards of an ice-hockey rink. Maslow (OST's artistic director as well as a seasoned scenic designer) thus both emphasized the fictional conflict inside the walls and ratcheted up the voyeurism inherent in a play that strips its characters figuratively naked.
Moreover, while the larger of the two sets of risers was set somewhat decorously back from the stage, the smaller abutted it. I sat in the front row of the latter: The stage began inches from my toes, and the rail at my knees -- made of weathered steel pipe and old 2 x 4s -- further suggested a kind of domestic prison.
Hartman (a Pittsburgher who attended the May 9 final performance) has an unsettling knack for putting her characters' pain into words. "It's embarrassing how much the skin craves to be touched," says the housewife. "Once you know someone's fears, you know everything there is about how to hurt them," says the hostage-taker. By inventively separating the audience from the action, Maslow's set paradoxically brought us closer to that pain.