Judging the tone of a new play can be one of the biggest challenges that a critic—well, this critic, at least—faces. I don’t mean just is it a comedy or a drama, though sometimes it can be as basic as that. More often though, it’s a question of nuance. What does the writer want us to feel about these characters? About the choices they make? The given circumstances and resulting actions?
Don’t get me wrong. Several of my favorite plays are uncategorizable, and watching them, I thrill to the sensation of being at least temporarily adrift in a sea of complexity and ambiguity. Such was my feeling about a number of scenes and moments in Rachel Bonds’ Goodnight Nobody, onstage at McCarter in a superbly moody production (Tyne Rafaeli directs; the knockout set and lighting are by Kimie Nishikawa and Jen Schriever, respectively.)
But too often here, as the tone moves across a wide spectrum, it bumps along rather than sailing smoothly. What exactly is Bonds trying to do? Days after seeing Goodnight Nobody, I’m playing over several scenes in my mind—loving some, scratching my head over others.
The ad copy cleverly describes it as “The Big Chill meets This Is Us,” and I can see both of those (This Is Us especially), but I don’t completely agree. The best I can come up with would be somewhat different: imagine Chekhov’s The Seagull in an adaptation by Stephen King. (And yes, frankly, Goodnight Nobody is sometimes as weird as that sounds.)
It beings compellingly, with an evocative scene that brings together Mara (Dana Delany, as wittily droll and charismatic on stage as in her fine film and television work) and Nan (Saamer Usmani, equally charming and jaw-droppingly handsome). Set in an idyllic if remote country cottage, the deliberately awkward pauses make it clear that the two are attempting to have a light conversation following a torrid one-night stand.
Glamorous as Mara is, she’s also clearly older, and we quickly get the sense that each of them has a complicated backstory. (I’d say this is as close to The Big Chill as Goodnight Nobody gets; in my Seagull equation, Mara is Arkadina, Nan is Trigorin.) We learn also that Mara is a famous artist and Nan a rising one—but apart from some name-dropping, this doesn’t seem central to Bonds’ theme.
Cut to another scene and two new visitors: K (Ariel Woodiwiss), a chatterbox young woman who arrives with funnily self-deprecating Reggie (Nate Miller). What follows is a lengthy exchange full of comic if sometimes stinging exchanges, played at a much faster tempo than the first scene. Reggie will turn out to be Mara’s son (so… Treplev in Seagull). But beyond this, the world of K and Reggie feels theatrically very out of sync with Mara and Nan.
This disconnection increases as we enter what seems like a third world. Collected around a campfire, the group—it now includes Bo (Ken Marks), a friendly but slightly disquieting man, who we’ll learn is Mara’s current boyfriend—slip into a kind of ghost story mode. Things get very woo-woo, very quickly. Compelling as some of this is on its own, I find it hard to reconcile with either of the previous themes.
It’s probably best that I stop here, since Goodnight Nobody traffics in an element of suspense. Taken together, the play is intriguing and frustrating in equal measure. The best bits—and there are many, including a monologue for K about childbirth that clearly had the audience mesmerized—are marvelous. (That monologue could drop straight into This Is Us and raise the level of that show’s writing considerably.) Delany, Usmani and Marks could scarcely be better (that I found Miller and Woodiwiss less satisfying is due in large part to the script), and the physical production is often quite transfixing.
All of this is evidence as to why McCarter would include Goodnight Nobody as part of Artistic Director Emily Mann’s valedictory season, much of which celebrates women artists. But Mann is also a frequently produced writer herself—surely she would know that this promising play would benefit from additional work.
Goodnight Nobody plays through February 9. For more information, visit the McCarter Theatre Center website.