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STAGE REVIEW

Caught in the dark of ‘Little Black Dress’

Marianna Bassham and Jeremiah Kissel navigate through a loveless marriage in the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre production of “Little Black Dress.’’ Marianna Bassham and Jeremiah Kissel navigate through a loveless marriage in the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre production of “Little Black Dress.’’ (Courtesy of Vernon Doucette/Bu Photo Services)
By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / October 7, 2009

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When the audience trickles into Ronan Noone’s “Little Black Dress’’ at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, the play is already in progress, though nothing much is happening. Which is the point.

A surly-looking man is lounging on a faded couch in front of a TV set while a woman wearily scrubs dishes in a kitchen sink. She wears pink bedroom slippers, also somewhat faded. Occasionally, with a faraway half-smile on her face, she dances to the strains of Frank Sinatra’s “The Best Is Yet to Come.’’ The guy on the couch seems unlikely to deliver on that promise.

This scene from a loveless marriage will eventually yield to verbal fireworks before spiraling into a climactic confrontation. As is often the case in Noone’s plays, there is a reckoning, a bill that comes due. And when all is said and brutally done, this new play adds up to an absorbing and mostly satisfying capstone to the Irish-born writer’s “American trilogy,’’ which includes “The Atheist’’ and “Brendan.’’

The challenge for “Little Black Dress’’ is to feel fresh, given that the dramatic territory Noone is exploring here - broadly speaking, the dark side of the American dream - has gotten a lot of traffic lately. (HBO pretty much lives in that neighborhood).

But few writers have Noone’s eye or ear. He can send storms of language gusting across the stage, and he sometimes does so in “Little Black Dress,’’ but he also demonstrates his understanding that love grows or dies in the small moments: the foot massage that a lover administers without being asked, the flatulence that a husband emits in the middle of a tender interlude, the lie revealed years after it was told.

He understands, too, the power of Hollywood mythology to both feed and distort the imagination (though this particular insight goes back at least as far as Nathanael West).

Set in a small town in Kansas, “Little Black Dress’’ revolves around the attempt by the woman in the pink slippers, Amy Beaudreaux (Marianna Bassham), to break free of her dead-end marriage to Jimmy Sr. (Jeremiah Kissel) and her stultifying life. This could be a risky gambit: Two stuffed deer heads hang on the walls of the Beaudreaux home, testaments to Jimmy Sr.’s prowess with a gun.

In the absence of a rewarding reality, Amy is trying to live her own movie. She sustains herself with magazine pictures of Rock Hudson (“who I reckon is the best example of a man a woman can get, even though I know he was kinda gay,’’ she says), of Grace Kelly in her movie-star heyday (Amy even dresses up like Kelly at one point, complete with evening gown and blond wig), of South Beach in Miami (where Amy longs to “watch the world go by as the sun goes down every day,’’ and of a black cocktail dress by Marc Jacobs.

At 41, Amy has a sense of time running out; she knows that if you don’t act on fantasies, they “start to become regrets, and eventually just plain silly. But if you do seek them out you better be prepared to make a sacrifice.’’

Her young lover, Charly Prescott (Karl Baker Olson) has a dream, too, but he is acting on it like the capitalist go-getter he is: The lad works as a gigolo - or “de-stresser,’’ as he likes to call it - for area housewives. He does such a brisk business that he needs to hire an employee: none other than Jimmy Beaudreaux Jr. (Alex Pollock). Jimmy Jr. soon wearies of his job (it seems one aging customer has a taste for S&M). But he sees a way out: Maybe he can design gigolo-based video games, complete with a point system!

The only one without a dream to sustain him, it appears, is Jimmy Sr. All that’s left for him is to deny the dreams of others.

Though Kissel delivers a forceful performance as Jimmy Sr. - he is terrifyingly convincing when the inevitable showdown arrives - the character comes across as somewhat one-dimensional compared to the other three. Part of what makes Noone distinctive as a playwright is that he gives full voice to blue-collar characters. But the brutish Jimmy Sr. doesn’t have the shadings of character that Noone gave to, say, the Machiavellian plasterer Eamon Collins Jr. in “The Blowin of Baile Gall.’’

As Charly, Olson is the picture of breezy self-assurance, even when tricked out in nothing more than boxer shorts and Hudson-like fake chest hair. It takes a while for Pollock to fully inhabit the role of Jimmy Jr., but when he does, he makes the character a poignant commentary on our need for celebrity, whatever form it takes.

Bassham’s performance is expertly tuned to Amy’s emotional frequencies, ranging from sullen apartness in the scenes with Jimmy Sr. to radiant happiness with Charly as her daydreams seem to be coming true. At each moment, she makes us feel this trapped woman’s desperation and the cost of the choices she makes.

The playwright makes us feel it, too, sometimes without the benefit of a single spoken word. There aren’t likely to be many more haunting stage images in Boston this season than Noone’s postlude, when Amy finally gets to wear that little black dress and, once again, to dance.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

LITTLE BLACK DRESS

Play by Ronan Noone

Directed by: Ari Edelson. Set, Jon Savage. Costumes, Amelia Gossett. Lights, Nikki Pierce.

At: Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, through Oct. 24. Tickets: 866-811-4111, www.bostonplaywrights.org

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