Gigi Bermingham‘s Non-Vital Organs is not just another multiple-personality disorder masquerading as a one-woman show. Now running at the Hudson Guild Theater, this two-hour evening, in which Bermingham impersonates seven New Yorkers in various stages of comic ennui, is a smart study of dominance and submission. Its center is Darlene Michaels, a 36-year-old recovery-center volunteer who plans to take her lottery winnings to Vermont and open an artsy gift shop. The only thing stopping her is her past: Rescued from prostitution and a nasty paint-huffing habit 20 years ago, Darlene remains haunted by her inability to have children. She is also very much a captive of her onetime savior, Sarah Pritchard, a fussy old singing coach with whom she lives in a Central Park apartment with a French maid and yappy dog.
Sarah, whose charitable largess operates the halfway house for women where Darlene works, is a brittle, manipulative crone whose little recovery empire often seems more like a spider’s web than a cure for addiction. Her center‘s very name — Our Lady of Magdalene — suggests the brutal Magdalene laundries in which abandoned Irish girls were once used as virtual slaves of the Catholic Church. Still, Darlene’s determined to break free of her history, untie her tubes and wed the married ex-con she adores.
The beauty of Non-Vital Organs is how its characters and plot points quietly gather substance — so unassumingly that for long stretches, the show really seems to be more about Bermingham‘s acting prowess than her narrative abilities. (She wrote the show, while Diana Hamann is given a “co–story creator” credit.) And, surely, Bermingham’s portrayals are adroit sketches in female bravado and vulnerability, whether she is playing Darlene, the imperious Sarah, her put-upon maid Genevieve or a brash hospital-cafeteria worker named Brandi. Bermingham confronts us with what initially seems to be a bewildering spectrum of women but easily differentiates them from one another and betrays an unerring knack for pinpointing a character‘s revealing tic — Darlene’s endearing stammer, Brandi‘s habit of running her tongue along her teeth. Too, Bermingham nails down the social and racial semaphore that passes for knowing cosmopolitanism in New York, as when Darlene tells us about her gift-shop partner, a woman who’s “Puerto Rican — but nice.”
If we can see some of Organs‘ plot twists a little too clearly too early, Bermingham at least brings them to the fore with a strong ending in Act 1, when suddenly the show becomes very serious. By the end of Act 2’s first five minutes, when Darlene awakens from a nightmarish slumber, this character has bottomed out, while the evening has reached its high point. Unfortunately, what follows is a disappointing retreat into both a comically contrived ending and the redemptive mythology of childbearing. It‘s almost as though someone told Bermingham that the logic of her story could only lead to a performance too downbeat to be acceptable to most audiences, and that the best way to end it was quickly and with neat pink ribbons and the promise of a new SUV.
The problem with this is that it runs completely against the hard grain of all that came before it: Even the show’s more antic moments — those concerned, say, with Genevieve‘s struggles with Sarah’s obnoxious dog — were illuminated by streaks of cruelty that reminded us of the pain that lurks behind every joke. That said, Non-Vital Organs remains an intelligent entertainment, both for Bermingham‘s considerable versatility and for the grown-up candor most of its story revels in. Director Richard Kuhlman nicely marshals Bob Blackburn’s cute but never cloying sound effects and Matthew Goldsby‘s low-keyed music to good advantage, while making sure that D.K. Pierce, an actor who appears briefly in a few scenes as some ancillary characters, is an effective presence without deflecting attention from Bermingham’s performance.