Marjan Neshat who impressed in three major Off Broadway roles in the past year (Playwrights Horizons’ Wish You Were Here and Selling Kabul and the Vineyard Theatre’s English) adds another feather to her cap in David Cale’s one-woman thriller, Sandra, playing all of the roles in this latter day erotic film noir for the stage. The Vineyard Theatre production follows monologist Cale’s previous solo play Harry Clarke which moved to the Minetta Lane from the Vineyard for a long run. Neshat is compelling as Sandra, an American woman who travels alone to Mexico to seek a missing friend Ethan who has disappeared during a two week vacation.
Mostly sitting or standing center stage, Neshat’s Sandra tells her story. After making a farewell dinner for her closest friend, the composer and pianist Ethan, he says to her on his way out, “I feel like disappearing from my life. Part of me just isn’t in the world. I’m at a remove.” When Ethan disappears from his hotel in Puerto Vallarta and doesn’t board his flight home, Sandra, a café owner in Brooklyn Heights, travels there to look for him.
There she meets a 70-year-old gay gentleman from New York, a character out of Tennessee Williams, a young blonde Australian surfer with long hair who may hold the secret to Ethan’s disappearance, and has an affair with Luca, a handsome sexy young Italian student who appears to be friends with two American patrons of her café whom she runs into on the beach. Her separation from her husband Richard appears now to be final. Back home she is contacted by FBI agent Stephen McCourt who discovers that several other gay Americans have also disappeared in and around Mexican resorts. This necessitates several more trips by Sandra to Mexico and her realization that Luca is not all he says that he is. She eventually solves one of the mysteries but puts her own life in danger which leads to an entirely different state of affairs. The ending though unpredictable is highly satisfying as it brings the story full circle.
Cale’s story uses many film noir devices from the 1940’s: exotic locale, strange encounters, searching down unknown streets, disappearing characters, a sexy stranger, danger signals avoided, clues that don’t add up, information that turns out to be fallacious, a damsel in distress, stolen objects, moments of high passion, etc. Yet all seem to be used as if for the first time. The elements are time tested, but the story is new. Cale is an excellent storyteller pulling us in with enough hints and clues to keep us interested until the very end. There are moments that sag but he always pulls us out into something new and unexpected.
Neshat is excellent company with her winning smile and poignant expressions, each mood subtly lit by Thom Weaver’s lighting. Although she does not do total voice impersonations of the many characters she plays here, she does give each a different intonation. While the play at times seems leisurely and drags a bit with its many repetitious trips to Mexico, she does speed up as she heads towards the surprising denouement. Director Leigh Silverman, who also staged Cale’s Harry Clarke, helps her to make the play both seamless and real.
Rachel Hauck’s one setting with its blue walls and brown armchair works well for the entire play even bringing to life several unexpected events that take place in various locales. The lovely music by Matthew Dean Marsh for the unseen composer Ethan makes us believe that he is a major talent. Katy Ruvuna’s sound design includes that of planes and the sea but as recollected from a distance. Wearing Linda Cho’s one orange wrap-around dress, Neshat appears comfortable as a woman with problems who eventually solves them and gets to reinvent herself, a theme the play shares in common with Harry Clarke. Sandra is a diverting and unusual evening of theater, quiet but engrossing as it tells its meandering though complex tale.
Sandra (extended through December 18, 2022)
Vineyard Theatre, 108 E. 15th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-353-0303 or visit email@example.com
Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission