She stands perpendicular to the audience, a leg jutting out defiantly, fingertips and thumb of the right hand joined together, the pose of a Fifties doo-wop singer. It’s a slightly mannish stance, or at least certainly not a feminine one. She is wearing dressy trousers and a man’s style of shirt. Her hair is bound up. Her look is no-nonsense. She is funny, profane, ambitious, canny. She is today’s woman, and today’s woman has a problem: today’s man.
England’s Carey Mulligan, one of the finest actresses working today, plays the star, identified in the program only as Woman, of Dennis Kelly’s riveting solo play Girls & Boys, which is playing at Manhattan’s Minetta Lane Theatre through July 22. Like a previous offering in the same space, Harry Clarke starring Billy Crudup, the event is something of an experiment produced by Audible, which is also offering an audio version of the play for those who can’t make it to the theater. When talent of the grade of Mulligan (or Crudup, who was phenomenal) is on offer, though, it’s well worth the effort to make it downtown and experience this singular form of drama. One person, a set, a monologue. Let’s go.
I should warn you, however, that what begins with comic overtones turns into a fairly disturbing evening of theater. There are no tricks or special effects — the performance really is just a monologue — and yet when it was over my shaken companion announced that it was one of the most upsetting things she’d ever witnessed on stage, and that she would have walked out if she could have done so without inconveniencing other patrons. It’s a cramped theater, and there proved to be no easy way out. That quality proved to be symmetrical with the experience Woman would like to talk about.
Mulligan is constantly gesturing, moving, altering her vocal patterns — and yet never for a moment does she slip and make the play seem like an acting exercise. Instead, she immediately makes the audience her friend with a frank, amusingly vulgar description of Woman’s twenties: drinky, druggy, and notably “slaggy.” Coming off a long monogamous relationship — it ended, she says startlingly, when the couple “took it outside and shot it in the back of the head” — she unexpectedly met a man in a queue in an airport in Naples. Kelly’s standup-comedy-style riff on how Italians wait in line is priceless, and Woman caps it off with a drawn-out anecdote about how the man ahead of her in line dealt with two models who wanted to cut the line and calculated that flirting with him would be the ideal means of doing so. Sure, the man said, but “I get to sleep with one of you, right?” The models, it is safe to assume, have never been treated so dismissively. There is something intriguing about this man, and shortly he and Mulligan’s Woman are raising two children together in a chaotic but loving household.
The director, Lyndsey Turner, and the set designer, Es Devlin, create an eerie interplay between Woman’s recollection of these domestic idylls and the rest of the monologue. Most of the story is told in a blank white space, a shoebox with one side cut out. But during blackouts the scenery changes and we’re in a happy living room–kitchen combination, littered with toys and children’s books and other tiny-person debris. Everything is a frosty white, even the books on the shelf, except for a scattered splash of color here and there. Woman’s two toddlers, Leanne and Danny, are not present, but she talks to them anyway, refereeing their squabbles and cleaning up their messes. Danny is forever destroying the things that Leanne is attempting to build, invoking jihad while doing so for added savagery. Danny is . . . a boy. Something is off about these scenes, and it isn’t that a woman is pretending to talk to two little kids. Turner and Devlin have pulled off something unnerving, even breathtaking. In an hour and 45 minutes of stage time (with no intermission), there is scarcely a moment in which the audience isn’t asking itself: What is wrong here?
Kelly’s work is unnervingly vivid and hotly of the moment, but disappointingly thin on substance.
Kelly’s play relies on the overused dramatist’s trick of concealing from the audience the details of a single event from the characters’ past until late in the evening, and as his words gradually come to a point, they deliver an insight that isn’t particularly new or useful. Men, we’re repeatedly told (Woman even cites some statistics for us), commit most of the violence on this earth. True, and it was ever thus, but what exactly are we supposed to do with this information? There is in the later stages of the play a somewhat boring signaling quality, a kind of billboard aspect: Yay women, boo men. I doubt either sex would make it very far without the other, and a more mature and layered play would consider that, but I can’t fault Kelly for tailoring the work to the moment. Marketability has to be a central preoccupation of today’s ambitious playwright. Kelly’s work is unnervingly vivid and hotly of the moment, but disappointingly thin on substance.