The Pershing Square Signature Center
The Irene Diamond Stage
480 West 42nd St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through March 15, $25
The night we went to see the new production of Charles Mee’s 2000 play, Big Love, at the Signature, technical difficulties delayed the start of the show, but it didn’t bother us one bit. Instead, we enjoyed extra time to take in the glorious beauty of Brett J. Banakis’s breathtaking set. The Irene Diamond theater is dazzlingly bright, mainly white and aglow in shimmering colors, with Austin Switser’s projection of a calm blue ocean at the back of the stage and smaller projections of hummingbirds, flowers, and other heartwarming scenes popping up at various places on the walls and floor. Above, dozens and dozens of flower arrangements hang from the ceiling, a heavenly garden in the sky. Meanwhile, romantic music plays, as gentle as the waves lapping gently out at sea. Onstage is a white claw-foot tub and a white door. Eventually the show got under way, as Lydia (Rebecca Naomi Jones) enters, removes her dirty wedding dress, and settles into the bath. She is interrupted by Giuliano (Preston Sadleir), a young man who is somewhat surprised to find a naked woman in the bathroom. Lydia explains that she is part of a contingent of women who have escaped their native Greece, where their fathers had signed a deal to marry them off to their cousins, and they are now seeking asylum in Italy as refugees. Lydia is joined by Olympia (Libby Winters) and Thyona (Stacey Sargeant), while first Giuliano’s grandmother, Bella (Lynn Cohen), shares some thoughts about husbands and sons with the young women, followed by the arrival of Giuliano’s uncle Piero (Christopher Innvar), a wealthy, slick-talking Mediterranean man who is not so sure he wants all of the women staying at his expansive villa; he finally relents, letting them stay for dinner. The three women are very different; Lydia is the most realistic, Olympia is an immature dreamer, and Thyona is the tough one, ready to take on the world if she has to. “The male is a biological accident, an incomplete female,” she says, “the product of a damaged gene, trapped in a twilight zone somewhere between apes and humans, always looking obsessively for some woman.” Lydia responds, “That’s maybe a little bit extreme,” to which Thyona argues, “Any woman, because he thinks if he can make some connection with a woman that will make him a whole human being! But it won’t. It never will.” Just as she is completing her rant, the women’s prospective husbands, Constantine (Ryan-James Hatanaka), Nikos (Bobby Steggert), and Oed (Emmanuel Brown), show up looking for their brides, and all hell is about to break loose.
Big Love is a contemporary restructuring of Aeschylus’s The Suppliant Maidens, one of the oldest known plays and the only existing section of the Danaid Tetralogy by the Father of Tragedy. Mee, whose other classicist works include Iphigenia 2.0, Trojan Women 2.0, and Orestes 2.0 and who has cited German dance-theater guru Pina Bausch as a major influence, throws just about everything he possibly can at this tale of fifty brides-to-be being chased by fifty determined cousins, from cake and tomatoes to Tiffany boxes and the heads of Ken and Barbie dolls. The potentially kissing cousins serve as their own Greek chorus, occasionally breaking out into song, a conceit that works best the first time around, when Lydia, Olympia, and Thyona suddenly grab microphones and, under hot spotlights, deliver a rousing rendition of the recently deceased Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me.” The play is directed with a controlled abandon by frequent Mee collaborator Tina Landau (A Civil War Christmas, Old Hats), who holds nothing back in this kitchen-sink production where anything can happen. The uniformly solid cast, sporting Anita Yavich’s delightful costumes, also includes Piero’s house guests Eleanor (Ellen Harvey) and Leo (Nathaniel Stampley), who are excited by all the festivities, but it’s Jones, Winters, and Sargeant who clearly command the center of attention. Big Love, which is part of Signature’s Legacy Program — Mee was the theater’s 2007-8 playwright-in-residence — doesn’t always hit its ambitious targets, but it’s an awful lot of fun, taking advantage of every little detail it can, from the way Oed, Constantine, and Nikos enter in helicopters to the absurdist use of a movable door to the appearance of a trampoline for no apparent reason. But what, no cake for the audience?