Going into Intimate Apparel, playwright Lynn Nottage was batting .500 with me. I loved her Pulitzer-Prize winning play Ruined, but found By the Way, Meet Vera Stark too contrived. I wondered if that average would improve? Thankfully, it did.
Set in New York in 1905, Intimate Apparel tells the story of Esther (Vanessa Williams – not the actress from Ugly Betty), a talented seamstress who has never fallen in love. A mysterious man from Panama named George (David St. Louis) starts sending her letters and a courtship develops in spite of the distance. By the end of the first act he’s arrived in town, they meet, and get married. Will this marriage work? Esther has always wanted a husband, but what does George want out of the marriage? Throw in Mrs. Dickson (Dawnn Lewis), her landlady; Mrs. Van Buren (Angela Reda), a client who is a big supporter of Esther’s work; Mr. Marks (Adam J. Smith), a Jewish fabric salesman; and Mayme (Kristy Johnson), a friend of Esther’s who has been known to throw herself at any available man – and you have a tempest in an early 20th century teapot.
Ms. Nottage makes the most of the material in a play that is intelligently handled and moving, even when it is predictable. It doesn’t hurt the production that Ms. Williams is so simple and graceful as Esther, I could have watched her for hours. I didn’t say watch her act because her performance is so sublime and simple that I felt like I was not watching an actor, I was watching Esther. The same can be said of Mr. Smith. Their scenes together are so loaded with tension that in lesser hands would feel like a soap opera. I think the play should end on their last scene together. The final scene plays like the last 15 minutes of The Shawshank Redemption; you know exactly where it’s going to go, and it would be nice if the audience was trusted to get their on their own.
I had a hard time with some of Mr. St. Louis’ lines, though I’m not sure if that was because of his accent or the sound system. Ms. Reda is good, but in the performance I attended she seemed very tentative in a pivotal second act scene. Ms. Lewis gives more of a sitcom performance, while Ms. Johnson makes the most of stereotypical role.
Scenic designer John Iacovelli and lighting designer Brian L. Gale have created a beautiful set. Director Sheldon Epps has gotten a lot of things right, but I have to take him and sound designer Steven Cahill to task for using the music of Scott Joplin. Though appropriate for the period, that music was used so memorably in The Sting it seems either a cliché to use Joplin’s music or sets up the audience for a different experience than Intimate Apparel offers. Rightly or wrongly, this music will forever be associated with that film.
I did find it odd that Ms. Nottage’s bio is not included in the program. I guess all the self-congratulating that was part of the opening night speeches took time away from a little detail like that.