Wednesday, March 4, 2015

166 (2014-2015): Review of BRIGHT HALF LIFE (March 3, 2015)

"Bright but Slight"

Pulitzer Prize nominee Tanya Barfield’s new play BRIGHT HALF LIFE, being given its world premiere by the Women’s Project Theater at City Center Stage II, is about a relationship between two women, covering 51 years, from 1985 to 2031. There’s nothing extraordinary in the relationship, not even the fact that the women are lesbians, or that one, Vicky (Rachael Holmes), is black and the other, Erica (Rebecca Henderson), white. That’s not to say their sexuality or racial issues are insignificant; these things are discussed, but they exist mainly to help define the characters and are not what the play’s about.
From left: Rachael Holmes, Rebecca Henderson. Photo: Joan Marcus.
BRIGHT HALF LIFE tracks their growing friendship at work (the not-for-profit business is unspecified), where Vicky is the supervisor of Erica, whose work entails data entry, but whose career choices will be to become an English professor or a writer of textbooks. Vicky and Rebecca date, fall in love, marry, and have twins (how isn’t spelled out). Along the way, they go shopping for a bed, ride a Ferris wheel, go sky diving, and fly a kite. When Rebecca meets her midlife crisis, after turning down a job that would have required moving elsewhere, and decides “I don’t know who I am,” they divorce and share custody of the kids, who grow up, get married, and have children themselves. Mortality intrudes, as it must, when Vicky becomes ill with stage 3 cancer, and we see that the long broken relationship is not that broken after all.
Rachael Holmes, Rebecca Henderson. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Vicky and Erica are smart, witty, nice, middle-class women, whose lives are not particularly memorable, but who experience the ups and downs, thrills and disappointments, breakups and makeups, of a loving relationship that, despite their divorce, remains essentially intact. Ordinarily, the story of Vicky and Erica, neither of whom is deeply drawn, would not be especially stageworthy, especially since its outlines are so familiar. For all the occasional tensions in the play, even the angry moments are rather muted and there’s no single moment of crisis that dominates the rest.
Rachael Holmes, Rebecca Henderson. Photo: Joan Marcus.
But Ms. Barfield succeeds in making the familiar unfamiliar by her device of telling the story not linearly, nor even backwards (as in Pinter’s BETRAYAL), but in a more or less kaleidoscopic deconstruction of the events into scenic shards that move back and forth in time, so that the play lies before us like a puzzle that only gradually gets filled in as each piece is put in place. The sequence, however, isn’t random, but carefully gauged so that scenes—some of them repeated—play off one another by their proximity to others, expressing inherent ironies. Something like this was done by Diana Son in 1998’s STOP.KISS, and other reviewers have noted similarities to CONSTELLATIONS, now on Broadway.

Ms. Barfield’s dramaturgic method helps lift what is otherwise a rather thin and conventional narrative to a somewhat higher level, as does her clever, often overlapping dialogue, but if the piece were any longer than its 75-minute running time it would have overstayed its welcome. Leigh Silverman’s direction makes the most of the playwright’s requirement that the work be performed without props or pantomime, although a horizontal bar drops down to suggest the restraint on a Ferris wheel gondola. She also has succeeded in eliciting multilayered performances from her actresses, who bring a solid sense of everyday reality to their dialogue and behavior; they successfully manage the difficult task of making speeding bullet transitions as the action keeps jumping freely from one level of intensity to  another. 
Rebecca Henderson, Rachael Holmes. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Rachel Hauck’s spare platform setting, using only a couple of simple benches, is wherever it has to be. The rapid scenic changes are all indicated by Jennifer Schriever’s expressive lighting and Bart Fasbender’s sound design. Both Ms. Henderson and Ms. Holmes are forever young, never having to resort to suggesting their aging selves, or even to changing their costumes (designed by Emily Rebholz); both wear slacks outfits, although Ms. Henderson’s definitely reeks of butch.

The brighter half of BRIGHT HALF LIFE is the way Ms. Barfield has constructed it. The slighter half is the material itself. My guess is that audiences will appreciate both halves for what they contribute to making the play whole. 

City Center Stage II
131 W. 55th Street, NYC
Through March 22

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