nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
February 12, 2007
Two neighbors meet for the first time during a brutal Chicago heat wave. Rose is an elderly shut-in with bad arthritis; William is a down-on-his-luck kid trying to be neighborly by bringing up her mail—or so the first couple of minutes of Neglect would lead you to believe. The piece takes place in real time, and the journey of the play is less a story than a negotiation between two desperate, and desperately proud, people, both trying to get something out of their exchange without revealing too many secrets of their own.
It's tricky to write, and to stage, a play this simple—the only thing on the table is a conversation between two people who've just met coincidentally. They have no history, no future together, and no major event happens to affect the course they're on. But the emotional stakes rise quickly in this tightly constructed play, and by the end of an hour, that simple interaction has long since been punched open, displaying a bleak landscape of much rawer and more volatile emotions.
Playwright Sharyn Rothstein expertly charts the constantly shifting power dynamic here—and it's very much to Rothstein's credit that even as the struggle descends toward violence, even as we see William manipulating Rose, Rose is never simply a victim, and William never simply a villain. In a conflict so carefully navigated, it's not surprising that there are a few missteps, and no clean-cut way to end the battle. Rose's back story sometimes seemed a little forced to me, and I wasn't entirely convinced that the play's ending tableau was as strong as what led up to it.
But the production as a whole is exceptional, all of its elements, including two very strong, nuanced performances, fleshing out the complexity of Rothstein's emotional landscape. Geany Masai's Rose is set firmly in her routines and stubbornly refuses to deviate from them; from Rose's fraying relationships with her adult children, we can deduce that stubbornness has been a lifelong habit. But as the play carefully reveals the cracks in Rose's façade—her forgetfulness, her loneliness—Masai papers over each one determinedly with joviality, with a show of will, actively striving to make each repeated question, each fearful clinging at the familiar, seem like a conscious choice so that her inadequacies will not be revealed to a stranger.
William Jackson Harper's William, too, is fighting tooth and nail to hang on to a façade. Like Masai, Harper lets flashes of the hidden temperament emerge, carefully—a hint of anger, a tinge of frustration. But he keeps his mind fixed on his goal, on getting what he wants out of Rose in a vaguely legitimate way—until the truth about Rose's mental state starts to sink in, and he realizes that charm and a few well-placed fibs aren't going to work here.
Director Catherine Ward works subtly with her actors' physicalities. Harper's William is restless, twitchy, constantly on edge. It's a nice contrast with Masai's slower-moving yet more imposing Rose, a woman whose apartment is all that's left of her world, and who has dominion in her small kingdom.
The production design shows the same subtle attention to detail. The apartment conveys both Rose's pride in her home and its claustrophobia for William. There's just a little too much furniture on Maruti Evans's set; it's just a little too hard to walk around and each individual piece takes up a little too much space. The blinds need dusting and the pictures on the credenza are starting to look a little faded, but there's an overall tidiness, a sense that everything has a place. Lisa Renee Jordan's costumes, too, get all the details right—a slight griminess on William, who's been out in the brutal heat; socks and house shoes, even indoors alone, on Rose.
It's this care in the craft that ultimately sticks with me from Neglect—the specificity of the acting, the care with the physical elements. It's worth seeing not just because it's a strong play—though it is—but because it's a beautiful example of how a production breathes life into a play.