THERE ARE SOMETIMES advantages to seeing a newish play, Intimate Apparel, at the Taper more than a year after it was born, especially when the production is as good as this one, and especially when the playwright, Lynn Nottage (author of Crumbs From the Table of Joy), has had an even newer play, Fabulation, produced in the 15 months it took Intimate Apparel (now at the Taper in a production by New Yorks Roundabout Theater Company) to slice through the Big Apple on its circuitous route from its birthplace, Orange Countys South Coast Rep, to downtown L.A.
Nottages Fabulation opened in June at New Yorks Playwrights Horizons. This is pertinent only because the thematic chords that she strikes in both of her latest works offer a clue to the workings of her mind and her heart.
Fabulation is a made-up word that refers to the creation of made-up realities, or fables. The central character is an African-American PR flack named Sharona Watkins who, for any number of reasons including pretentiousness, has re-named herself Undine. Among many jokes in Nottages picaresque saga, Undine is undone when she loses her job and is forced by circumstance to deal in a very real way with her Brooklyn family, whom she abandoned years ago on her way up.
Though theres nothing picaresque about Intimate Apparel, it sets the stage for Fabulation first by setting the story in 1905 Manhattan. It, too, deals with a female African-American protagonist who makes things up beautiful garments and love letters, to be precise. Thirty-five-year-old seamstress Esther (Viola Davis) is toppling into an unwelcome spinsterhood her bitterness exacerbated by a series of wedding dresses she sews for co-dwellers in the boarding house where she lives. Esther is also a virgin and illiterate, so whatever feelings she expresses for an unseen West Indian suitor named George Armstrong (Russell Hornsby, when he finally appears) laboring meter by sweaty meter to build the Panama Canal are written and embroidered by one of her enthralled clients, Mrs. Van Buren (Arija Bareikis), whose own marriage is as stultifying as the corsets Esther sews for her.
Georges florid replies, recited by the man in Panama, or by either Mrs. Van Buren or Esthers skeptical landlady, Mrs. Dickson (Lynda Gravátt), create a dramatic tension akin to that in Henry James novella Washington Square. Is Esther being duped? Is this love or speculation? Will Esther, like Undine, be undone? What makes a fable crack? What happens when a fabulator falls?
Intimate Apparel also sets the stage for Fabulation by the way it sends themes of love, family and money orbiting around the centerpiece idea of fable, like so many electrons around a nucleus. Esthers other client is a prostitute (Lauren Velez), eventually hired by George. Meanwhile, Esther keeps wads of cash sewn into her quilt cash she actually barters for Georges loyalty.
Pick your metaphor: the Panama Canal and its arduous reach across a continental divide, the corset against which every character strains, the cash in the quilt.
Despite some narrative improbabilities in Act 2, Daniel Sullivans production is almost literally picture perfect: Davis and Hornsby lounging across a cash-strewn bed; bolts of cotton in a scene between Esther and the Jewish milliner, Mr. Marks (Corey Stoll), from whom Esther buys her fabric; or the sensual tenderness of Marks holding a swath of embroidery across Esthers neck. Were it not 1905, were George not awaiting an arranged marriage in Romania, their love would surely find a more earthy expression.
Derek McLanes quadruple-proscenium set has mannequins perched stage right like archangels which, with Allen Lee Hughes delicate lighting, seem to float behind stained glass.
Much has already been written and spoken about Davis electrifying performance amid a fine ensemble (though Hornsbys Barbados brogue is sometimes difficult to decipher). Davis lurches with the gait of a boxer, then flashes a wide-eyed stare thats part cherub, part rabid wolf. When she is stoic, her threats rattle the mannequins above her. When she is animated, her throaty gales of hurricane laughter uproot Esthers torment and fling it across the stage.
INTIMATE APPAREL | By LYNN NOTTAGE | A ROUNDABOUT THEATER COMPANY PRODUCTION at the MARK TAPER FORUM, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown | (213) 628-2772 or www.TaperAhmanson.com | Through September 12