Lynne Nottage's Intimate Apparel is set in the America of the early 1900s, a world in which if you can't be male you'd better be white, and if you can't be white you'd better be attractive. Probing this obnoxious pecking order, Andrea J. Dymond's assured, fluid production provides all the elements of a worthy drama except, by and large, drama itself.
Intimate Apparel is the story of Esther, an intrepid seamstress who refuses to let her illiteracy stand in the way of a romantic correspondence with the all-too-promising George Armstrong, chipping his way to her through the germinal Panama Canal. "Chaos," he says, "is only a jackhammer away." If only.
There are few narrative surprises here. Nottage is persuasive enough in miniature—she casually mentions someone losing his tongue in a fight over a chicken—but the larger elements belie this gift for the thrilling, the vivid, or the absurd. Surely no audience is naïve enough to greet George's long-shot investment with optimism, or to hear Esther clucking away about all that cash in her mattress without a certain tremor? And when a woman has a prostitute for a best friend and a degenerate for a husband, even the slowest imagination reaches its gloomy conclusion a good half-hour ahead of the characters.
The arc of Nottage's story is broadly adequate, and the playwright adorns her construction with a funny line every five minutes and an insight every 10. But the strongest feeling the script inspires is a sense that we've seen it all before, and the polemical Nottage seems more comfortable with highlighter than eraser: "It's tough being a colored woman in this city," she helpfully tells us at one point. And for a play that asks us to believe its social milieu is as restrictive as the corsets Esther prepares, there's an awful lot of talking about emotions. Furthermore, by galloping when it should trot and walking when it should canter, the play gives little sense of passing time—a huge flaw in a study of longing.
Esther herself is a contradictory character, but not pleasingly so. At heart she is something of a blank, and it's difficult to say what makes her remarkable. Nottage may be asking us to see this cipher as something of a semi-anonymous everywoman, but that's not what one goes to the theater for.
This blandness is by no means the fault of the actor; Shinnerrie Jackson gives a pretty commendable performance. You can tell a lot about an actor by how she reacts to the unforeseen, and when a pencil accidentally flies out of Jackson's hand she follows its trajectory with a delighted squeal. This provides as enjoyable a moment of spontaneity as Fred MacMurray's famous "nasal spray" reaction in The Apartment. Throughout, Jackson plays every emotion convincingly, except anger.
There haven't been many actors since Montfleury whose dignity can survive being wheeled on stage, but Adeoye as George Armstrong copes admirably with this curious decision. However, the vital moment when he and Esther eventually meet is boorishly crashed through by all concerned, not least Dymond in a rare wrong note.
It's a cliché to describe a single element of a production as worth the admission price in itself, but I defy anyone to set eyes on Christopher Pickart's achingly lovely set without experiencing the joyful humility one feels in the presence of the beautiful. This quiet symphony of yellows, caramels, and sepias is sumptuously lit by Catherine Girardi. It's functional, too, and, in the five seconds before the intermission, set and lighting are transformed to provide the most powerful moment of the play.
This isn't the only alchemy. Occasionally in life one encounters a fortunate individual who, upon arriving at a party, will effortlessly illuminate the mood of the room. As Esther's no-nonsense landlady, Tracey Copeland Halter brings this gift to the stage; instantly winning, she just gets better in every scene. Halter inspires the highest pleasure an audience member can experience—anticipation. She is the real tailor in this production, spinning, Rumpelstiltskin-like, the straw of her few appearances into gold. The evening belongs to her.