On one level, the wonderful Blair Brown, Edie Falco and Marin Ireland play grandmother Claudette, daughter Charley and granddaughter Tessa in Simon Stephens’ delicate plays Morning sun, produced by the Manhattan Theater Club, which opens tonight at City Center.
But it’s a deceptively nice description of what’s going on in about 90 minutes, with the actors and their characters – they’s in their 70s, 50s, and 30s, respectively – becoming unfixed as they tell the stories of all three women’s lives, leaping around in time as much as between a wide range of people. Brown, for example, plays Falco’s final, very lovely partner, while Ireland also plays Falco’s former violent partner. The piece can be quite strange to follow; a moving scene between mother and daughter suddenly becomes an intimate scene with amorous sweet nothing or threatening threats.
To emphasize how literally we should see them, these characters in the program are listed as 2 (Brown), 1 (Falco) and 3 (Ireland).
The staging has a hint of Dana H.‘s flat literal strangeness. Dots’ design plunges us into what looks like a basement, with a cheap sink, scattered furniture and a wardrobe next door. It feels wan, a scene for performances rather than something more conventional; and that’s how it is – in their game of character change – the three actors use it, leaving director Lila Neugebauer with the complex task of trying to revive a deliberately boring scene. The saving grace here, truly the play’s transfixing heart, are the three beautifully modulated performances.
Instead of a message telling us to shut up and shut down our phones, Ireland is asking us to keep quiet. The play begins in the dark, with what sounds like an incoherent nightmare. Then we hear how Brown as a grandmother managed to get a beautiful West Village apartment (a rent-controlled walk-up on the 5th floor) back, as such magical events were not uncommon. Oh, the sigh in our audience when we heard “Two bedrooms, $ 75 a month.” New Yorkers at a certain age liked such a tale, but given the market forces, these stories are now daggers for so many others.
The apartment sounds idyllic, but the space we are a lot is not. It might feel like a purgatory outside of time; all the main characters eventually tell each other, and us, how they died. In a sense, they themselves are doing theater for each other. They finally tell each other things they never did when they were alive. In death, in this space between life and death, comes openness.
The three women create the stories of their lives, and the fact that they play multiple characters contributes to the meta-feel of the exercise. This provides some sharp lyrics and surreal moments, but not necessarily thoroughbred theater. The characters feel in their non-life, non-dead, sad non-space a little too stuck when analyzing and recalling the past. It is down to Brown, Falco and Ireland’s excellent efforts to engage and turn on each other that we listen and lean in.
The unseen and beautiful protagonist is New York itself, and the best of Stephens’ writing deals with the rolling metropolis – its streets, its hotspots, the way a morning of bright sunlight can do 7th Enter a glittering city line – with the precision and passion with which all dedicated New Yorkers embrace their city. It is a pride, possession and a unique, all-consuming, eternally challenging love affair and we would not have it any other way. The scene can be boring, but we can definitely see the colors, shapes and characters of Manhattan as summoned by Brown, Falco and Ireland.
Brown has the smart, quirky wisdom of a New Yorker who has seen it all, and Falco is the equally quirky but much more talkative daughter who grew up in the armpits of the 1960s but still found it boring. Her best friend is a girl, then a woman named Casey, played by Ireland. They cause a merry hell with each other, and then their friendship falls apart. This is a strangely jarring moment, as nothing in Casey’s free and easy attitude suggests the reason why the friendship eventually disintegrates, but what Stephens is doing right is the strange in life’s special focal moments, such as the last time you see someone they have known and loved for so long.
As secretary at St. Vincent’s, Charley sees AIDS destroying her loved ones and the community around her. 9/11 provides further grief, and then there are secrets and lies about illness, bad relationships, mental illness, family responsibilities and lust that bubble between the women. Morning sun is mostly a very serious play and so its moments of offhandedness and zinger vid are much appreciated. Just wait for the delicious swear word when Falco’s long-dumped violent partner shows up back on stage, eager to try to cheat himself to make a little profit off of the proposed sale of the West Village apartment.
Dazzling Ireland performs the most dramatic character changes – a real, funny, scary, masterful chameleon at work. Although the performances are perfect, the script can draw and circle around some carriages to fill time rather than depth and understanding. It is strange that Ireland’s grandson is suddenly depressed and angry out of nowhere, for example. But then the final sequences click into gear, and Charley gets a beautiful furious-to-the-light-die speech, which in turn encapsulates as much about New York City as it does about her, her embrace of life, her fear of death and her love for Tessa.
It is noteworthy that the most beautiful lighting in the play (by Lap Chi Chu) evokes the morning sun in the title of the play. It flows in from the stage to the right, a bright, lovely, bathing ball of light. Again, we remember that these women are, in fact, all dead, and yet alive before us, telling their stories, and in the shaded boundaries of memory, joy, sorrow, hardness, and togetherness are a greater story of a city and how a city . has its own stories – so many stories.
Of course, the really happy ending happens off stage and who ended up with the damn apartment.