nytheatre.com review by Russell M. Kaplan
April 18, 2008
Catherine Trieschmann's Crooked has a lot on its mind. In its 90 minutes, the play tackles issues of love, power, self-image, sexuality, and loyalty, to name a few. It's almost singularly impressive, then, that you won't even realize these things until well after you've left the theatre. The Women's Project has dressed up all these big ideas in the sheep's clothing of a surprisingly accessible domestic drama.
Laney is a 14-year-old aspiring novelist with a penchant for the absurd and violent. She and her recently divorced mother have just relocated to Oxford, Mississippi, where Laney finds herself a social outcast due to a grotesque chronic hunch of the shoulders. Though claiming to revel in her status as a loner, Laney is quick to embrace a friendship with a fellow outsider—a well-meaning but simple-minded born-again Christian named Maribel. Needless to say, Laney's progressive-minded mother is less than thrilled with her choice of company, particularly when Laney announces in one fell swoop that she's found Jesus and loves women, specifically Maribel...she's a "Holiness Lesbian."
If this premise sounds like a setup for an irony-heavy but emotionally light parade of quirky characters, then it's a wonderful surprise to be slowly drawn into the unflaggingly honest drama that follows. The laughs—which are frequent throughout the first half of the play—bring down our guard early, but as they seamlessly give way to heavier scenes, it becomes clear that the humor has come out of the characters' genuine insecurities. And fortunately, these are insecurities that are universal to all of us...the need for acceptance, the search for identity, the unpredictability of life itself.
Much—if not most—of the play's success is owed to the uncanny chemistry of a near-perfect small ensemble. Cristin Milioti astutely captures the teenage Laney's often-contradictory needs for acceptance and rebellion with wonderful commitment and physicality. Her smart-mouthed mother Elise—so liberal that she makes Laney's rebellion frustratingly impossible—is played by Betsy Aidem with an ease and emotional availability that is simply astounding. And as Maribel, Carmen Herlihy displays both brilliant comic timing and a fearless vulnerability that quietly breaks your heart. The trio's exceptional synergy is tapped to its fullest potential by director Liz Diamond, who keeps the story moving forward with a refreshingly light touch, and never talks down to the characters or goes for the cheap laugh. And all this is to say nothing of Trieschmann's wonderful new script, which manages to boil down the human struggle (at least the modern suburban kind) to a humble three-character play in a way that never once feels forced.
If I have one reservation, it revolves around the ending, which—don't worry, no spoilers—belies a much deeper pessimism than the play implies up until that moment. If this final moment of darkness left a slightly confused aftertaste in my mouth, however, it was minor compared to the enriching and entertaining string of them that came before. Run, don't walk, to Crooked. Or at least walk briskly.