Theater Review: Restraint Adds Up To A Powerful Climax In 'Intimate Apparel' - 27 East

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Theater Review: Restraint Adds Up To A Powerful Climax In ‘Intimate Apparel’

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Copyright Lenny Stucker

Copyright Lenny Stucker

Copyright Lenny Stucker

Copyright Lenny Stucker

author on Jul 10, 2017

The characters are standard for a period drama—a proud but plain woman getting past the marrying years, a raffish scoundrel, a well-meaning yenta, the other woman who’s lost and lonely too (she just happens to be a hooker), the sensitive man our heroine might marry but never will, the unloved rich woman who wanders through. The year is 1905, the place, New York City.

But stir these elements together in the febrile imagination of Lynn Nottage and they become as real as life in her finely written “Intimate Apparel,” currently running at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor. “I feel your pain” was a trope a few years back that works here—hope and sorrow, big plans and dashed dreams deliberately and slowly wend their way to the unfortunate end you sense is coming, but oh, so wish it were not.

I am not the first person, of course, to praise this wonderful play in particular or Ms. Nottage’s dazzling way with words in general—the woman’s won every kind of accolade, including two Pulitizers. And surely I will not be the last.

The heroine is Esther, a determined and dignified “colored” seamstress who makes stunning, sexy corsets for the uptown ladies of Fifth Avenue as well as downtown ladies of the night, both of whom she befriends. As the play opens Esther is putting the finishing touches on a corset for the latest girl at her boardinghouse to find a husband. It’s the 22nd corset she’s made for such an occasion in the 18 years she has been there. Will her time never come? While she has been waiting, she has also been judiciously saving up to one day open a beauty parlor where “colored” women (to use the vernacular of the play) will be treated like fine ladies. In fact, Esther’s already got quite a stash sewn into her quilt.

Through a church connection, one day a letter arrives from a worker on the Panama Canal—and what a letter-writer he is! His simple but eloquent language entices her. The worldly owner of the boardinghouse, Mrs. Dickson, is dubious, but Esther is lonely and longing for love. Maybe this is her prince. With the help of two of her clients, she writes back to this Mr. George Armstrong. Love by letter ensues, then a marriage proposal. What could possibly go wrong?

Kelly McCreary, known to many for her role on “Grey’s Anatomy” as well as many other television shows, gracefully inhabits the role of Esther Mills, radiating quiet dignity and pride, yet always aware of her lot and self-conscious of her looks. At times you want to shake Ms. McCreary to speak up for herself, so completely is she Esther on the way to her fall.

The plot takes its time to evolve, and along the way so do the love lives of the other characters, making them much more than ancillary players. Each has his or her own compelling back story. The wealthy socialite, Mrs. Van Buren, is childless and loveless; her husband seeks a warm body elsewhere, and she’d like to be a bohemian, but doesn’t have the courage. Esther is the person Mrs. Van Buren sees as her most intimate friend, and one tipsy afternoon she goes too far.

In the dialogue between the two, the realities of the racial divide arise, here handled evenly and without bitterness—just stark honesty. Esther could take the wealthy white woman to a colored show, which Mrs. Van Buren desires; but Mrs. Van Buren (a tall, winning Julia Motyka) can’t possibly take Esther to the opera.

Mayme is the bawdy-house pianist and hooker with less than a heart of gold, but she too is a fully realized individual with her own history of disappointments that brought her to where she is now. Though ultimately we might like to, we can’t quite despise Mayme as we might; instead, Ms. Nottage’s words and Shayne Small’s perfectly understated performance lead us to empathy.

Then there is the tender relationship between the Jewish fabric-seller, Mr. Marks (a faultless Blake DeLong), who appreciates the grace and sweetness of Esther, and she responds in kind. He’s also going to marry someone he has never met; their families made the arrangement long ago. The scenes between Ms. McCreary and Mr. DeLong are heart-breaking to watch as they dance around their mutual but unacknowledged affection and physical attraction.

Into this world comes the manly, tough, good-looking Barbadian George Armstrong, who is less than his letters led us to believe. A commanding performance by Edward O’Blenis transverses the divide with authority. If his later behavior is shameful, it gives an unflinching portrayal of indignities endured by a willing and strong black man who can’t find a job other than “polishing the white man’s nickel.”

These observations are not preachy—many still apply—and that is the gift of Ms. Nottage’s writing. “Intimate Apparel” dispenses advice and observations with abandon, yet never so showily that they focus attention on themselves. When asked to be part of Esther’s wedding, Mayme thus refuses: “I ain’t got nothing to say to God, and it don’t seem right to go up into somebody’s home and you ain’t on speaking terms.”

Mrs. Dickson (a robust performance by the mononymous Portia) warns Esther: “Don’t let a man have no part of your heart without getting a piece of his.”

Jeff Cowie’s clever set revolves (sometimes literally) around a bed that is practically a player itself; a bed is in every single scene. Most times, the actors themselves change the bed from the red louche one of Mayme to the pink fluff of Mrs. Van Buren to the plain bed of Esther to the surface upon which Mr. Marks spreads his sumptuous fabrics as well as his heart.

Emilio Sosa’s absolutely fabulous costuming—not only the luxurious corsets and one other item best unnamed, for it’s a plot point—enhance the station and story of the wearers. Kudos to the actual seamstress or two here.

The knowing direction of Scott Schwartz, who is also Bay Street’s artistic director, brings the composite narratives together to a restrained, but powerful, emotional climax. Enjoyment comes not from surprises, but seeing the stories meld, the realities accepted, the denouement unfold as it must. “Intimate Apparel” is a rich mincemeat of a pie.

Ms. Nottage found inspiration for the drama in photographs she discovered when she went to clear out her grandmother’s brownstone. Each act ends with an evocative and throat-catching framed scene that are setups for the kind of photographs that one might come across in an attic: Unidentified Negro couple, and Unidentified Negro Seamstress. They go by in a wink, but that’s the beauty of them.

If the characters seem as if they are stock characters in drama (or soap opera) that’s because they come from real life and are as ancient as the first playwrights to take pen to papyrus. Not surprisingly, “Intimate Apparel” is being turned into an opera.

“Intimate Apparel” continues at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor through July 30. Showtimes are Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7 p.m., Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 7 p.m. Matinées will be held at 2 p.m. on Wednesdays, July 19 and 26, and Sundays, July 23 and 30. Tickets range from $30 to $125. Guests under age 30 may purchase $30 tickets and guests under 20 may pay $20 for tickets, though only at the box office or by phone. Call 631-725-9500 or visit

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