94. THE HATMAKER’S WIFE
whim·sy also whim·sey (hwmz, wm-)
n. pl. whim·sies also whim·seys
1. An odd or fanciful idea; a whim.
2. A quaint or fanciful quality: stories full of whimsy.
I begin this review of Lauren Yee’s THE HATMAKER’S WIFE with a dictionary definition of “whimsy” because that is the operative word describing it in practically every review. Anyone wishing a concrete example of the word in action merely need visit this play, which is running at the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre (on the fourth floor of Playwrights Horizons), where it is being produced by the Playwrights Realm. Whimsy also is the word that raced to my brain two minutes into the performance and refused to budge. Of course, there’s good whimsy and bad whimsy. It pains me to say on which side of the divide this play falls.
THE HATMAKER’S WIFE is set in the zigzag shaped living room (designed by Carolyn Mraz) of a shabby suburban New York house that Gabe (Frank Harts) and his girlfriend, whimsically named Voice (Stephanie Wright Thompson), are renting. Soon we meet (or hear) Wall (Megan Byrne); no, this isn’t the character from the Pyramus and Thisbe scene in A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM. It’s the house’s actual wall (or walls), whimsically addressing Voice in an attempt at a Russian accent. (I say Russian, not Yiddish, as per Ben Brantley’s suggestion, because Yiddish would pronounce “hat” as “het,” not “hiyet.”) Actually, Wall is not attempting to speak with such an accent. It’s the actress, Ms. Byrne, making the attempt, just as do three other characters. Marcia Jean Kurtz as the whimsical title character, comes closest to capturing it, while David Margulies, as Hetchman, the hatmaker, lags a bit behind, and Peter J. Friedman as Meckel, the friendly neighbor in white checked pants and loud sport shirts (more redolent of Miami Beach than a New York suburb), appears to have said the hell with it and hoped for the best.
Anyway, Voice, who works as a copy editor for technical manuals, is unsure if she loves Gabe, and, while he’s away at work, ignores the house, whose sole piece of furniture is a well-worn easy chair; days go by but the place remains strewn with the cartons containing her and Gabe’s belongings. She is too preoccupied with listening to Wall, who says “I am wall of truth” and claims to “know all,” and with reading aloud the typed pages of a whimsical story that keep flying in through an air vent and the top of an empty picture frame. As she reads aloud, essentially narrating the play (as per the comparably whimsical but, in contrast, actually superior THE LIFE AND SORT OF DEATH OF ERIC ARGYLE) she learns more and more about the houses’ former residents, Hetchman and his wife; of their whimsically ambiguous feelings of unexpressed love and awesome neglect (after 60 years of marriage, he can’t remember her name); of the childlike Hetchman’s preoccupation with a TV series about the end of mankind; of his wife’s having walked out one day with Hetchman’s favorite hat, of which she is jealous and to which, whimsically, she talks while riding on a train in scenes showing her on the other side of an open window; of the hatmaker’s obsessive longing for his hat, to which he writes whimsical letters, while constantly dipping into a can of peanuts (he loves the hat-wearing Mr. Peanuts); of a whimsically hulking golem (Frank Harts, again) who somehow materializes in Hetchman's house; of how Hetchman and Meckel visit the cemetery to speak to their wives and dead friends; of how Meckel must walk about with a clothespin on his nose because Hetchman smells; of how Hetchman’s memories are brought on in small jars that glow with different colors, and can be heard when opened; and, so on, ad whimsicalum, until the story of a baby enters the tale and we learn of just how closely Voice is to the presumably loveless old couple. Of course, everything works out for the best if only your heart isn’t too clogged with whimsy to find love.
Rachel Chavkin, who did such a splendid job in staging NATASHA, PIERRE, AND THE GREAT COMET OF 1812, is not at her best with this material. Aside from introducing such things as atmospheric background music, rumbling sound effects (a fine sound design by Ryan Rumery, who also created the original music), stylized lighting (by Amith Chandrashaker), a transparency effect that allows Wall to be seen in the picture frame, and a set that comes apart at the seams when love suddenly overcomes Hetchman, she is unable to inject any sense of believability into the proceedings. Laugh-worthy humor might have lessened the burden of sitting through this material; an example of what passes for funny is when Hetchman, unable to give his wife any passion, offers instead a cup of fruit salad because it contains passionfruit.
I felt uncomfortable seeing veterans Friedman, Margulies, and Kurtz do mortal combat with their roles, whose obstacles to truthfulness not only create awkwardly forced behavior but may also have been responsible for several flubbed cues the night I saw it. If these senior players are having trouble, it’s understandable that their juniors find themselves in the same sinking boat.
I don’t mind tasting a slice of whimsy from the playwriting pie, but when the whole play, like this review, is full of the stuff, I’d rather eat my hat.