The Alice Complex
nytheatre.com review by Amber Gallery
August 12, 2008
Despite being inspired by true events from the life of feminist Germaine Greer, Peter Barr Nickowitz creates his own fascinating story with The Alice Complex. The play centers around a student showing up at her professor's home and holding her hostage for several hours. But this is the extent of what is lifted from the Greer story. Nickowitz layers in all the fictional details and produces a jigsaw puzzle of a play rather than a linear one.
Sally is a professor in her 50s who wrote a book called "The Alice Complex," and Rebecca is one of her students who lives and dies by this book. Sally, however, well into her tenure and much older and wiser, has stopped believing what she wrote. This infuriates Rebecca and fuels her coming to Sally's house and tying her up for several hours. Rebecca brings a gift box that may contain the severed penis of a man who raped her the night before.
Besides Sally and Rebecca, Nickowitz uses his two actresses in nine other roles, total. These include younger and older versions of each main character, and significant people they interact with in their lives. The play moves back and forth from scenes in the house to flashbacks (and flash forwards) from each woman's life—Rebecca as an older woman, Sally as a young girl, and even Rebecca as a teenager first being introduced to Sally's feminist work.
Also, there are monologues delivered directly to the audience by Sally. And the play begins and ends with a pair of scenes between the fictional writer of the play "The Alice Complex," named Margot, and a fictional actress playing one of the roles. The piece is bookended with these two characters openly discussing the play's meaning and themes.
The two actresses, Lisa Banes and Xanthe Elbrick are the life blood of The Alice Complex. It is pure joy to watch such gifted performers. Banes as Sally is clearly a master of her craft and with her pleasantly husky voice and spot-on comedic timing she draws you in from the first line. Elbrick plays all her characters with extraordinary sincerity, and she has one of those rare, beautiful faces that subtly changes from role to role to where she is almost unrecognizable with no external help.
Director Bill Oliver handles the frequent back-and-forth of scene and character with ease. The play is staged well and the changes never seem long or distracting. Dina Alexander's fitting choice of music greatly assists in this. Oliver and set designer Tania Bijlani use every bit of the space on the large stage and as a result the play's execution is smooth and allows the story to come through.
Nickowitz is no doubt a gifted and insightful writer, but the fragmented storytelling method he employs doesn't seem necessary. The scenes spin together nicely, but keep spinning at a certain distance, and never funnel closer to any point where we as the audience can really grab on and invest in the story. In effect, the play does not pack the emotional punch it would be capable of achieving if told in a linear fashion with just the two characters. The structure choice distracts from the tight direction, lovely performances, and, ironically, from the beautiful writing within it.
Despite this, the play is thoroughly enjoyable, and often downright brilliant, and I found myself mulling it over hours after I saw it.