The Speed Queen
nytheatre.com review by Josh Sherman
July 15, 2007
The first thing that you notice when you walk into the WorkShop Theater's Jewel Box space is the tightness of the quarters. This kind of setting should be ideal to experience the insane highs and lows of Marjorie Standiford, the fictional protagonist of the novel The Speed Queen by Stewart O'Nan. But this one-woman dramatic adaptation by Anne Stockton, who also portrays Marjorie, somehow manages to lack the electric connection that the space should help to provide the audience with, and turns what should be a rollicking excursion into something that feels a lot blander than it should, given the "sex, drugs, rock & roll" subject matter.
Stockton certainly looks the part of a world-weary Oklahoman on death row. The entire piece is a narrative confessional told to a tape recorder, ostensibly to set the record straight on her story. She has the accent down pat, and captures the essence of a cocaine user with her spitfire delivery about five minutes after she finishes snorting it. (How she is able to sneak coke into her cell on death row is never adequately explained.) The plot itself is interesting: her lover LaMont, a car enthusiast, leads her astray into a world of drug use and abuse, and eventually gets her arrested. She is thrown into a motel-turned-jailhouse where she meets Natalie, who becomes her lesbian love partner until they both get out and move back in with LaMont, who shacks up with Natalie as well. But, because this is a one-woman show, the narrative is limited to a past-tense monologue that works to varying degrees of success in engaging the viewer, and it's always in a didactic, presentational style. The story of the fast-food stick-up gone wrong, at the show's climax, could be terrific if told in a Tarantino-esque way (be it on film or stage) because the audience could engage in it. But this style of narration needs much more rise and fall from the performer, and Stockton's choices remain far too even-keeled for far too long for us to feel either sympathy for Marjorie or true shock.
Director Austin Pendleton tries within the constraints of the space to make some adjustments. He successfully crescendos the music cue "Radar Love" by Golden Earring when Marjorie is in the biggest throes of her drug rush. Festival limitations may have kept both performer and director from adding lighting effects, but it doesn't explain the lack of either rage or despair from Marjorie about the injustices inflicted upon her. At the final tableau there is finally a sense of rage that erupts, but without spoiling the twist I will tell you that it just made me question the wisdom of building an entire show around one axis, only to see that axis destroyed just before curtain.
This adaptation of The Speed Queen feels like a bit of a misfire, simply because the plot itself is so riveting. The most engaging parts of the monologue are when those plot points tumble upon each other, as a rapidly unfolding hold-up goes horribly awry. It is at those moments that you can see why Stockton was so attracted to tell this story in the first place. If framed in a less presentational manner, and in a more forgiving theater space, I could see a completely different version of The Speed Queen being an immensely satisfying experience.