The perennial tale of a noble servant exploited by a self-absorbed upper class family is given a bewildering and tedious treatment by playwright Amina Henry in The Great Novel. It’s an enervating 95 minute mashup of lesser Ionesco with helpings of Wes Anderson and the visual style of John Singer Sargent.
Before it begins one marvels at scenic designer An-lin Dauber’s glorious arrangement of gold-accented vintage furniture including a much used chaise lounge, a fireplace, a stately desk and gray curtains. Later, we’re magically transported to Jamaica with striking foliage. The stage is also adorned with Leila Ben-Abdallah’s perfect prop design that has a pivotal large blue Tiffany bejeweled egg prominently on display. In swirling fonts, black and white cute scene titles are projected onto a triangular screen.
Xboxes are mentioned, connoting the present but anachronisms such as the need to wind a clock abound and are symptomatic of the strained whimsey. We’re at a lavish Upper East Side apartment where the black Bertha has toiled for 10 years as the maid for the eccentric white Brennan family. They’re still emotionally shattered by the death of Mrs. Brennen a year earlier from anorexia or consumption.
Father Dick is a remote businessman. Seventeen-year-old daughter Charlotte is imperious and besotted by her British boyfriend Potter. Her 13-year-old sister Anne is good-natured. Their 23-year-old brother Saul is a disaffected opioid addict and alcoholic out of J.D. Salinger who listens to New Order’s “Blue Monday.” Bertha has aspirations of writing a great novel but doesn’t have the time to accomplish this or the inspiration as to what it would be about. Her salty dead Jamaican grandmother frequently appears as a domineering ghost.
Ms. Henry’s familiar scenario is expressed in the manner of a fable and her stylized gee whiz fairy tale-style dialogue contains a lot of literary yammering with nods to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Henry imposes the conceit of having the white characters appear in whiteface makeup. This magnifies the strategic artifice as several of these cast members are people of color. By design The Great Novel is a non-realistic exercise that does have a heartfelt quality but from its opening moments to its fantastical finale it never coheres into a satisfying play. It’s an amiable endurance test.
Director Sarah Norris’ staging is expert, and she obtains the likably exaggerated performances from the cast that all fulfills Henry’s vision.
The animated Nikki E. Walker is a delightful Bertha. Michael Aguirre is appealingly angst-ridden as Saul. MaryKathryn Kopp and Tabatha Gayle are both suitably childish as Charlotte and Anne. Oghenero Gbaje offers a slyly charming characterization of Potter. Joshua Bermudez grandly enacts the role of Dick the father. Madeline McCray is a feisty Granny.
The unison of lighting designer Christina Tang and sound designer Carsen Joenk’s proficient efforts achieve a desired dreamy atmosphere. Mari Taylor’s costume design is a terrific blend of past and contemporary garments.
The Great Novel is a work that is perhaps only comprehensible to its author as most anyone else is likely to find it to be cryptically pointless.
The Great Novel (through June 29, 2019)
New Light Theater Project
The Siggy at The Flea Theater, 20 Thomas Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-226-0051 or visit http://www.newlighttheaterproject.com
Running time: 95 minutes without an intermission