Amber, a 30-year-old mother of three, has separated from her feckless, philandering husband Chris one more time after pipes broke in their house and he didn’t have the money to take care of the damage. Living at her mother’s house down the block, Amber is convinced by the charming Chris to take him back though she doesn’t actually believe when he says this time it is going to be good. Three months later, on the eve of daughter Jamie’s eighth birthday party, they are back living in their house with the children sleeping in the living room. Amber is still working two jobs, while Chris only works a few hours a week at J.J’s, and can’t be counted on to remember to pick up the children from school.
Amber’s saving grace is Chris’ older unmarried brother Jim, silent and taciturn, who is fixing up the mold in the children’s room and offering to take care of things like the ice cream for the party and to drop Amber off at one of her jobs on his way to work. Amber thinks his awkwardness around her means he doesn’t like her, but a better explanation is that he is sweet on her but too ethical a man to make a move on his brother’s wife even though he suspects Chris is cheating on her. And then, Chris forgets to put down the minimum payment on the electric bill unpaid in full since last month and the lights go off. And why is Chris still getting texts from Michelle who is trouble when he said he had stopped seeing her before he and Amber got back together?
Schwend’s dialogue is realistic, believable, and true to life, as are the characters. As a play, however, it is a bit of a downer as we watch Amber become wearier without any relief in sight. Aside from Chris who is always putting everything off until tomorrow, Amber’s mother (who has been conned into liking him as a good father) is always begrudging about helping out though she lives down the block and doesn’t have anything else to do. The atmosphere and the characters are real, but each scene is just more and more of the same which becomes depressing and tiresome – just like Amber’s life. There is also the question of where the money comes from to buy all of the items that are carried in the door – unless the family is living on credit card debt which is never mentioned. This is also the sort of play where we hear a get deal about the children Janie, Max and Sammy, but the author manages to keep them off stage all evening.
Under Jay Stull’s direction, the cast is uniformly accomplished giving indelible performances of people living at the subsistence level. Vanessa Vache demonstrates indomitable spirit as the harried Amber, just about holding herself together each time she walks in the door of her kitchen only to find another disaster awaiting her. Though James Kautz plays the sort of guy most of us wouldn’t trust, his Chris has the superficial charm that seduces a certain type of woman who has low expectations. Alex Grubbs is a much more admirable type as the reticent, uncommunicative Jim, an excellent portrait of a man whose face and body language does his talking for him. As Amber’s mother Laura, Melissa Hurst is amusing as a woman who has every excuse why she shouldn’t have to help out her nearly overwhelmed daughter.
The most successful part of Utility is the physical production. Kate Noll’s working kitchen is a marvel of authenticity, also revealing the family’s economic status from the lack of decorations and luxury items. The many props such as the groceries, birthday presents, and alternate lighting sources needed are the responsibility of Zach Serafin. The bland, utilitarian costumes which sum up these people are the work of Angela Harner. Nicholas Houfek’s lighting design is more elaborate than kitchen sink dramas usually require due to the lights going out and other forms of illumination being needed. The subtle sound design with kitchen appliances, noises from the off-stage rooms, and ambient sounds from outside is the work of Jeanne Travis.
The Amoralist’s production of Emily Schwend’s Utility is admirable for its depiction of real life. However, it is weak on dramaturgy in that there is little progress or catharsis to keep the play from remaining on one level throughout the evening. Nevertheless, the able cast piloted by Jay Stull makes the play believable even when the story seems to have run out of steam.
Utility (through February 20, 2016)
Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre, 224 Waverly Place, between Perry and W. 11th Streets, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.TheAmoralists.com
Running time: 95 minutes without an intermission