S. Epatha Merkerson - long famed as the understanding Lt. Anita Van Buren in TV's "Law & Order" - is one of those actors who can bring a simple, challenging honesty to simple, unchallenging banality.
That's just as well, because there's an awful lot of simple, unchallenging banality to go around in William Inge's 58-year-old pseudo-classic "Come Back, Little Sheba."
Just why Manhattan Theater Club wanted to bring this creakingly dated play back to Broadway is perhaps explained by Merkerson's wish to appear in it. Or perhaps the company wondered if Inge - once oddly regarded as virtually the equal of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller - was due a resuscitation attempt.
He isn't. He's a playwright who got lucky and meshed quite neatly with the general feel of his period, although he in no way examined it.
The story, set in a Midwestern city in 1950, is a sad one - sad and relentlessly melodramatic.
The slatternly, blowsy Lola (Merkerson, though neither slatternly nor blowzy are adjectives she usually brings to mind) has run to seed after a teenage pregnancy, hasty wedding and miscarriage that's left her unable to bear children.
Doc (Kevin Anderson), her husband of 20 years, had given up his medical studies following their enforced marriage, settling to become a chiropractor.
Years of disillusion (and Lola's slovenliness) made him an alcoholic, but for some time he has, with the help of AA, been off the bottle.
Following years of financial privation, brought on by Doc's demon drink, they've rented a room in their small house to a young art student, Marie (Zoe Kazan).
Marie - listen to the sticky sound of the plot thickening - has two beaus: the well-muscled Turk (Brian Smith), who fancies himself a javelin thrower (highly Freudian), and Bruce (Chad Hoeppner), a wealthy boy from her hometown, who sells things and wants to marry her.
Poor, repressed Doc has the hots for their nubile lodger, and when he discovers that Lola has let Turk spend the night with Marie, he loses it.
You don't really want to know what happens. Suffice it to say - before ending in a state of wary hope that sends the audience home, purged but cheerful - it involves a bottle of whiskey (shown soon after the opening curtain), a runaway wedding, a hatchet and two implacably burly interventionists from AA.
Michael Pressman's pedestrian staging is as adequate as the play deserves, and a miscast Merkerson makes an adorable Lola - sincere, compassionate and, well . . . miscast.
The best performance comes from Anderson as the dark, sexually twisted, wild and crazy Doc, who runs the dubious gamut of the role like a champion hurdler.
He, at least, manages to glitter dangerously amid the play's thick thickets of mediocrity.
As for Little Sheba - she's a pet poodle gone missing before the play starts, and, trust me, she ain't coming back any time soon.
Sometimes, when she stops the restless chatter with which she fills her days and lets the silence take over, Lola Delaney seems to be staring at nothing in the deeply felt revival of “Come Back, Little Sheba,” which opened Thursday night at the Biltmore Theater. Yet as S. Epatha Merkerson portrays this housebound wife of an alcoholic, in a performance that stops the heart, her gaze is anything but empty.
In those moments Ms. Merkerson’s face is devoid of expression, except for her eyes. In them you read, with a clarity that scalds, thoughts that Lola would never admit she is thinking. Because if she did, there would really be no reason for her to keep on living.
The marvel of Ms. Merkerson’s performance in this revitalizing production of a play often dismissed as a soggy period piece is how completely and starkly she allows us to see what Lola sees. Conveying everything while seeming to do nothing is no mean feat — a rare accomplishment expected, perhaps, from seasoned stage stars like Vanessa Redgrave (in “The Year of Magical Thinking”) or Lois Smith (in the recent revival of “The Trip to Bountiful”).
But though she has appeared on Broadway before (receiving a Tony nomination for her work in August Wilson’s “Piano Lesson”), Ms. Merkerson is principally known as Lt. Anita Van Buren, the no-nonsense police boss of “Law & Order” on television. Her style on the small screen is naturalistic, low-key and determinedly untheatrical.
That’s also her style in “Come Back, Little Sheba,” in which she recreates a part originated with award-winning showiness by Shirley Booth on stage (1950) and screen (1952). Yet Ms. Merkerson allows a kind of intimate access traditionally afforded by cinematic close-ups, when the camera finds shades of meaning in impassive faces. She rarely signals what Lola’s feeling; she just seems to feel, and we get it, instantly and acutely. Such emotional sincerity is the hallmark of this revival from the Manhattan Theater Club, directed with gentle compassion by Michael Pressman and featuring first-rate performances from Kevin Anderson and Zoe Kazan. The production’s commitment to its characters uncovers surprising virtues in William Inge’s play, his first New York success.
There was a time, in the mid-20th century, when Inge (1913-1973) was spoken of in the same breath as Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. Thoreau’s much-quoted words about “lives of quiet desperation” were regularly and mistily invoked to describe the ordinary people of waning hopes in Inge’s plays, which were regularly translated to film (“Picnic,” “Bus Stop,” “The Dark at the Top of the Stairs”).
By the late 1960s Inge’s small, tidy canvases seemed unlikely candidates for posterity compared to the more grandly scaled work of Williams and Miller. His Freudian take on repressed American sexuality was regarded as archaic; so was his careful, paint-by-numbers dramaturgy.
In Mr. Pressman’s production, you can still see what Frank Rich, writing in The New York Times of a 1984 revival of “Little Sheba,” called “Inge’s transparent manipulation of his dramatic machinery.” But the performances here are so convincingly present tense that you come to accept scene-shaping contrivances — those too conveniently timed entrances, exits and phone calls — as if life were really that structured.
It’s the quietness in “quiet desperation” that Mr. Pressman and his cast highlight here in portraying a few days, both eventful and typical, in the claustrophobic lives of Lola and Doc (Mr. Anderson), a chiropractor of dashed ambitions trying to stay off the sauce. Like Ms. Merkerson’s anchoring performance, this production resounds precisely because it keeps its voice down.
Though slim on plot, “Come Back, Little Sheba” could easily tilt toward giggly hysteria. After all, it is, in large part, a play about s-e-x from the zipped-up 1950s (scarily summoned in Jennifer von Mayrhauser’s costumes) and how the pursuit of primal instincts derails everyday lives. Set in Doc and Lola’s cramped, cluttered house (cannily designed by James Noone and hauntingly lighted by Jane Cox), the story centers on the disruptions caused by their boarder, Marie (Ms. Kazan), a clean-cut college student of healthy carnal appetites.
The middle-aged Lola, running to fat and slovenliness, sees in Marie an idealized version of her younger self and encourages (and spies on) the girl in her “tall spooning” with her boyfriends (Brian J. Smith and Chad Hoeppner). Doc, forced to abandon a career in medicine when he married a pregnant Lola years before, sees in Marie a purity missing from his life. His eventual realization that she is not the paragon he hoped is enough to have him reaching for the bottle and going berserk.
Mr. Pressman, making his Broadway debut, subtly elicits a feminist subtext from this anxious triangle. In Lola’s coy prurience about Marie’s love life and her awkward flirtations with any tradesman who drops by the house (the milkman and postman, natch, nicely portrayed by Matthew J. Williamson and Lyle Kanouse), we see a woman who has outgrown the only role she ever learned to play: the cute, ingratiating coquette, trading on sexual promise.
Correspondingly Ms. Kazan, who is emerging as one of the busiest and best young actresses in New York, presents Marie as a young woman who knows that her most essential bargaining tool is her sex. She’s sharper than Lola (Ms. Kazan is terrific in conveying the character’s self-consciousness), and she’s sure to wind up richer. But you have the feeling she’ll ultimately be just as trapped.
That Ms. Merkerson is an African-American in a predominantly white cast only underscores the sense of Lola’s enforced passivity. For a white man to marry a black woman in the Midwest of the 1950s would truly have squelched any chances for conventional success. And every time Doc looks at Lola, you can feel him assessing everything he’s given up.
Mr. Anderson refreshingly plays down the character’s grim sorrowfulness and emphasizes the well-groomed fastidiousness that keeps Doc at a disdainful remove from all that Lola embodies. That he is not a sloppy drunk but one of icy anger and contempt, gives his big breakdown scene an almost unbearable harshness.
His scalpel-edged viciousness in that scene means that Doc wounds Lola with surgical exactness. And Ms. Merkerson responds with an abjectness that makes you want to rush the stage and intervene. All through the play, Lola has had the air of someone expecting to be rebuffed, put down, hit or sent packing, whether cozying up to Doc or making nice with her supremely competent neighbor (Brenda Wehle, excellent).
Her compulsive chattiness on all subjects — including Little Sheba, the dog that disappeared from her life as completely and inexplicably as her youth — is obviously for keeping at bay the fears that steal up on her when it’s quiet. Ms. Merkerson and this production make sure that even when Lola is talking a blue streak, we also always hear the unspeakable gray silence that lies beneath.
Virtually all the characters in William Inge's "Come Back, Little Sheba" steal repeated glances at their watches, indicating that time passes for each of them and they have other places to be. Except for Lola. In S. Epatha Merkerson's poignant performance, this faded former high school beauty queen is hopelessly mired in the past. Naive, girlish, incessantly talkative and starved for romance and company, Lola is rendered almost feeble-minded by her solitude. She's the quintessential 1950s housewife, sleepwalking through a melancholy world in which women are assigned few roles beyond homemaker or whore.
But while Merkerson supplies the tender heart to Inge's slow-burning domestic drama, Michael Pressman's production -- which began with the Center Theater Group in Los Angeles last summer and has been brought to New York by Manhattan Theater Club with some key recasting -- unfolds for much of its two acts at a hazy emotional distance.
Premiered on Broadway in 1950 and then filmed two years later, the play won both a Tony and an Oscar for Shirley Booth, who created the role of the slovenly Midwestern housewife desperate to please her drunken husband. More than a half-century later, it remains very much of its time.
At his peak, Inge was ranked alongside Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, but the emphatically freighted characters and heavyhanded symbolism in his sentimental melodramas have made them age less gracefully. In a production sensitively attuned to the writer's mood, style and themes, Inge's work does have a bruised humanity, keen atmosphere and a genuine feeling for everyday folks living mundane lives stripped of their dreams.
Pressman animates the text with efficiency and clarity on James Noone's evocatively homey, two-level set. But only when festering dissatisfaction explodes into violence and cruelty does the director fully overcome the flaws in the writing to transport us deep inside the characters' world.
The lethargic first act makes a considerable chore of its exposition duties. As Doc (Kevin Anderson) trudges off to work each day and his wife fusses about the house doing nothing in particular, we learn they were forced to marry at a young age but Lola lost the child she was carrying. Doc dropped out of medical school and had to settle for becoming a chiropractor, eventually turning to the bottle. Straining to maintain civility toward a woman he seems at times to barely tolerate, Doc has been sober for almost a year now, prodded by Lola to recite his daily AA prayer in a futile attempt to stay straight.
The couple's fragile stability is tested by their young boarder Marie (Zoe Kazan), whose bristling sexuality and flirtatiousness turn Doc's head while filling Lola's with silly notions of vicarious romance.
Inge is not exactly subtle in laying out the subtext, enlisting the absent puppy of the title to represent Lola's lost youth and the happiness she once shared with Doc. And the playwright overstates Lola's yearning for a connection, triggering her compulsive babbling the minute anyone cracks open her door, whether it's the postman (Lyle Kanouse), the milkman (Matthew J. Williamson), Marie's horny jock boyfriend (Brian J. Smith) or an industrious, initially disapproving neighbor (Brenda Wehle) who turns supportive when things get ugly.
Merkerson essentially is too strong and handsome a woman to entirely fit this damaged character. It's to her credit, though, that despite Lola's potential to become as tiresome to us as she clearly is to Doc, the character builds slowly into a figure of quiet pathos and eventual emotional devastation. Her hurt silences have a capacity to move that her words often lack.
When the dream of Little Sheba's return gives way to reality in the end, Merkerson's face and her deadened body language tell us everything we need to know about Lola's sad awakening, without Inge's dialogue laboriously having to spell it out.
Similarly, Anderson communicates the frustrations of a life turned sour, investing truthfulness in an over-determined role in which his simmering menace is telegraphed from the start. Anderson and Merkerson are not entirely believable as a co-dependent couple but he conveys the sorrow of a man gone to seed and the awkward resentment of someone unable to accept personal responsibility for the compromised fulfillment of his life. Despite its inevitability, his meltdown, when he falls off the wagon and turns on Lola, is shocking and powerful.
The dissipation of that power in the final scene is due more to softness in the writing than in the direction or cast. In addition to Merkerson and Anderson, strong characterizations are contributed by Smith and Wehle. However, while Kazan has been a consistently intriguing stage presence in a series of recent New York roles, her Broadway debut seems less-than-ideal casting, giving Marie a self-absorbed, unsympathetic edge that blunts the girl's beguiling spell over her landlords.
Ultimately, despite its expressive central performances and forceful emotional crescendo, the MTC production is most interesting as a period piece dealing with subjects such as alcoholism, domestic violence, sex and pregnancy out of wedlock, long before they became standard-issue dramatic fodder.