nytheatre.com review by David Vining
September 9, 2009
The world premiere production of Nesting by Caitlin Saylor Stephens is a frustrating example of a play that has a lot to offer, but is ultimately undone by unevenness.
The play maps one woman, Anna, and her struggle to maintain normalcy after a devastating fire has all but destroyed her home and her family. The playwright seems to have a deep understanding of the complexities of the grieving process. Stephens also offers some of the plays best moments in her performance as Anna's daughter's troubled friend Ashley.
This is partially due to her burgeoning talent and obvious closeness to the subject matter (brought home by a program note which emphasizes the autobiographical nature of the work) but also because as a writer she clearly understands the action of the play much better through the eyes of someone her own age. Scenes between the older adult characters ring false and as a result tend to be stiff and flat.
The play itself is a bit like a teenager. Its emotional content is like a blunt object. It hits you, and often with some power, but there is little subtlety to be found.
Some of the responsibility for this has to be placed with director Jennifer Sandella. Her staging is seldom inventive and often unnecessarily awkward. She also seems to have made some expedient choices that make a difficult play even harder to appreciate.
To wit, the design is inexplicable. A great deal of effort (if not money) seems to have been put into creating the image of a burned-out, waterlogged house in ruins, but the layout of the furniture creates a needlessly narrow mock hallway the actors repeatedly struggled with that had me aching to move the sofa over a foot or two.
The faux kitchen is also distractingly odd looking, to the point of suspending disbelief. The problem is not the lack of budget, but the lack of continuity or thoughtfulness. An entire lasagna is prepared, then later shown cooked, while more important elements like smoke, walls, doors, and a crucial prop bird don't come close to working or are missing entirely and have to be mimed.
The inconsistency continues with the sound design, which works well in moments, but strays in music choice, which seems to suit the teenage Ashley more than represent our supposed heroine Anna.
This, in fact, is emblematic of the show as a whole. It seems like a young person's view of grief. This is, of course, completely valid, but unfortunately the story Stephens chose to tell is not a young person's story, it is the story of a 40-year-old woman.
Melissa Wolff tries her darnedest to alternately bring gravitas and humor to Anna, but the script does her no favors. In scenes with the fire inspector there is chemistry needed that just isn't there. The scene with her estranged husband reads like a paint-by-numbers TV movie argument.
It isn't until the end of the play, when Anna and young Ashley part company in a powerful, ambiguous, and ultimately redemptive moment that you see the difficult reality that the playwright is attempting to show: The importance of working through tragedy in our own way—even if that way is messy and backward. This idea is worth telling, but Nesting only delivers it in fits and starts.