Everyone loves a good immigrant story, from The Godfather on down. No Good Things Dwell in the Flesh doesn’t reach that high, but it succeeds in what it tries to do, which is to be an accurate portrayal of a specific experience.
Agata (played by reliable veteran Kellie Overbey) is an aging Russian tailor with a shop in Queens who wants to retire. She’s 64 years old and hasn’t had a vacation in 12 years. She’d like to give the shop to her young assistant Janice (Carmen Zilles). Janice is interested but also boy crazy and generally doesn’t have good judgment.
The play is essentially a character study of Agata, who is based on a real tailor the playwright, Christina Masciotti, knows. “Whenever I went to see her, I was always struck by something she’d say. And her level of expertise was astounding,” Masciotti said in press materials. “Eventually I approached her about wanting to write a play based on her life. Her immediate response was, ‘I always knew this would happen.’ She pulled up a stool, and I spent six months by her side.”
This is an admirable level of research but the side characters, Janice and Vlad (T. Ryder Smith of Underneath the Lintel), are more compelling. Vlad is mentally ill and obsessed with Agata. How did he get this way? Based on a flashback scene he used to be a functioning member of society. Now he’s showing up at Agata’s shop unwashed and in his underwear; Smith’s acting is so strong you can practically smell the B.O.
Janice, a millennial obsessed with her phone and a desire to get a boyfriend, is equally intriguing. She is immediately recognizable as a young person lost in a complex world. A scene where she has a panic attack is a highlight in no small part due to Zilles’ acting and Rory McGregor’s direction. (He was the associate director on The Lehman Trilogy.) Agata talks her down through the power of sewing, which is interesting to watch but could have been more of a theme in the play.
The set (by Brendan Gonzales Boston) looks like a tailor shop, with a huge rack of clothes in the background (something cool happens to them at the end). Stacey Derosier’s lighting is solid, with a nifty LED strip on the wall.
Masciotti is a Guggenheim Fellow with strong reviews for her earlier work. She’s clearly a talented writer with a long career ahead of her. This is not a great play but it shows promise.
No Good Things Dwell in the Flesh (through September 23, 2023)
Jeffrey and Paula Gural Theatre at A.R.T./New York Theatres, 502 W. 53rd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit https://www.christinamasciotti.com/
Running time: One hour and 45 minutes without an intermission