Julia Rae Maldonado’s new play Muses opening the new renamed Court Square Theater in Long Island City (previous known as the Astoria Performing Arts Center) has an intriguing premise: Emily, an aspiring painter who is beginning to be known, is on the verge of a divorce from her husband Sam, when she is contacted by Grace, a 15-year-old high school student, who claims she has had a relationship with Sam. According to Grace, she met Sam at a benefit concert at her private school where he is a donor, they hit it off and he has been calling her his “muse” while he writes his first novel.
However, both every scene as written by Maldonado and directed by Theatre East’s artistic director Judson Jones is staged as though it were the climax. It is one thing to enact a play up to the hilt. Here there is no arc or build up. Every scene begins at the top and leaves the actors with nowhere to go. Although performed by a tight quartet of actors, as written the characters are two dimensional, telling us no back story and little about them.
Emily, played by Lauren Pisano, appears to be having artist’s block with her work when we first meet her. In her scenes with Grace and her sister-in-law Kate, she is uptight and nervous long before she discovers that Sam may have been cheating on her with a minor. All we ever learn about Kate (Lauren Sowa) is that she and Sam are from privilege and that she has always looked after him, getting him out of situations. She becomes more and more frenetic when Emily does not want to follow her advice and get back with Sam. She is the sort of entitled person who has trouble not getting her way.
Played by Thammie Quach who plays this teenager as much older than 15, Grace who has been a talented singer until her break-up with Sam is overwrought in the manner of troubled youth. We never know what really happened until almost the end of the play, leaving us to wonder through most of it if it is a figment of Grace’s imagination, her family life or if she has been damaged by her experience.
Joseph Dean Anderson’s Sam is the most interesting character. Not only is he privileged and entitled, he may be a sociopath if Grace is telling the truth. He appears never to have worked and the writing of his novel comes as a surprise to both him, his wife and to us. Confronted with his alleged relationship with Grace his first instinct is to lie his way out of it. According to Kate, he has been very promiscuous and had many affairs over the years.
Maldonado writes believable dialogue but her characters seem to cover the same material over and over again, sometimes in the same scenes. Although Sam pays the rent on Emily’s studio and money is no object for him, set designer Zach Murphy’s art studio in DUMBO is rather empty and sparse. The one flashback scene is poorly staged but that is mainly the problem of the lack of scenery to define the location. Both Emily and Grace wear the same outfit throughout the play in costume designer Sherry Martinez’s design, but Kate and Sam are seen in what appears to be expensive clothing changes each time we see them. Murphy’s lighting plot does not make it clear what the main source of light is in Emily’s studio, usually the one thing artists’ studios are known for.
Julia Rae Maldonado’s Muses leaves a great deal unanswered and the characters go about their lives somewhat oblivious of the others. Directed by Judson Jones, the play seems about to end numerous times before the final scene. Lauren Pisano, Joseph Dean Anderson, Thammie Quach and Lauren Sowa are talented actors working with total commitment but here they are asked to be hyper all of the time which undermines the flow and arc of the play. While the play has a topical theme, it is in very much need of a restructuring in its current form.
Muses (through June 3, 2023)
Court Square Theater, 44-02 23rd Street, Long Island City, in Queens
For tickets, visit http://www.theatreeast.org
Running time: 100 minutes without an intermission