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Nice Girl

Melissa Ross’ new play is a glaring look at the human condition with a group of lost souls stuck in the past and will leave the audience with plenty to discuss at the end of the evening.

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Diane Davis and Kathryn Kates in a scene from Melissa Ross’ “Nice Girl” (Photo credit: Monique Carboni)

Diane Davis and Kathryn Kates in a scene from Melissa Ross’ “Nice Girl” (Photo credit: Monique Carboni)

Ryan Mikita, Critic

As one gets older, it is natural to reflect on the past. It is also a very easy thing for any person to look at the past as a source of deep regret. So often it is the case that a person might struggle in moving forward because they are so focused on their mistakes. After all, that is a part of what “growing up” is, right? Be present enough to take a good hard look at yourself in the mirror, and instead of throwing the blame around, look at the past as an opportunity to foster self-growth and build character. In Nice Girl, Melissa Ross’ second premiere with Labyrinth Theater Company (Thinner Than Water, 2011), this previous notion of rumination is just the tip of the iceberg in a play bound to leave those walking out of the theater at the end of evening with plenty to discuss.

Set in Boston in 1984, Nice Girl is the story of Josephine “Jo” Rosen (Diane Davis), a 37-year-old secretary who lives with her mother. Davis’ Jo is the epitome of a “nice girl.” She keeps to herself, puts others first, and is afraid to say how she really feels in spite of clear emotional stress. Davis is an actress with immense emotional depth, and provides a varied and complex look at a protagonist whose self-inflicted pain, from an outsider’s perspective, is frustrating and also subtle enough that it feels totally conceivable.

In theory, Jo’s decision to move out of her mother’s place and take a step towards independence shouldn’t actually be as difficult as it is made out to be, but this mother/daughter relationship is not quite so black and white. For starters, Jo’s mother Francine (Kathryn Kates) refuses to let go of her daughter’s innocence. Though early on the character of Francine is drawn dangerously close to a stereotypical picture of an overbearing mother, Kates’ character receives some much desired depth as the second act kicks into gear. Seemingly relentless, Kates gives a master class in well-intentioned and heart-felt nagging. Though it can’t be confirmed, it is a safe assumption to say that many members of the audience will roll their eyes as they are reminded of seemingly all-too-real mother/child arguments—present company included.

Diane Davis and Nick Cordero in a scene from Melissa Ross’ “Nice Girl” (Photo credit: Monique Carboni)

Diane Davis and Nick Cordero in a scene from Melissa Ross’ “Nice Girl” (Photo credit: Monique Carboni)

To perpetuate things further, Jo is also frustrated as a 37-year-old single woman. Enter Nick Cordero as Donny, Jo’s love interest and the sole male of the cast. A man with as many (or more) problems as Jo, Cordero’s Donny is recently separated and has his own baggage. A perfect contrast to Davis, Cordero is charming and charismatic, but the self-loathing nature which fuels Donny slowly festers and is painful to watch: Cordero is both loved and hated as a man who clearly wants to change but hasn’t yet found his way.

As Jo’s co-worker and confidant, Sherry (Liv Rooth) provides some much desired comic relief and character work—though as with all the other characters, nothing should be taken at face value and Rooth’s Sherry is just as complex and self-deprecating as the rest of the bunch.

Mimi O’Donnell, artistic director of Labyrinth Theater Company and director of this production, tackles pathos with ease in a play which is full of dangerously funny moments teetering on the edge of a dark lagoon. It would seem that at any moment one of these characters might be pushed over the (metaphorical) edge, yet the play is exciting, fun and constantly thought-provoking.

Diane Davis and Liv Rooth in a scene from Melissa Ross’ “Nice Girl” (Photo credit: Monique Carboni)

Diane Davis and Liv Rooth in a scene from Melissa Ross’ “Nice Girl” (Photo credit: Monique Carboni)

Performed in the recent residence of the Labyrinth Theater Company, the Bank Street Theater, this small and intimate venue is perfect for the content. The set design by David Meyer is of an old-fashioned 1980’s home, and is laden with props which add to the stuck-in-the-past motif. With some clever set tricks and strategic lighting (Japhy Weideman), this—at first—seemingly one-room play actually has about four or five different scene locations. To complement the set and lighting, the costume design by Emily Rebholz is painfully 80’s. Between the dated kitchen appliances, searing 80’s power ballad soundtrack, and linebacker size shoulder pads, there is no mistake of the decade in this production.

Though the play is dated to 1984, the material is ageless. It is human nature to overanalyze past experience, and Jo is the embodiment of a character preoccupied with her past failures and regrets. Melissa Ross’ new play is a glaring look at the human condition, a picture of a group of lost souls stuck in the past. With a very talented cast and Labyrinth Theater Company at the helm, this production is very much living in the present.

Nice Girl (extended through June 21, 2015)

Labyrinth Theater Company

Bank Street Theater, 151 Bank Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-513-1080 or visit http://www.labtheater.org

Running time: two hours including one intermission 

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