As Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Sweat continues on Broadway, you can see her much-produced earlier work, Intimate Apparel, at McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton. It opened May 12 and continues through June 4. Directed by the award-winning Jade King Carroll, Intimate Apparel takes place in 1905 on New York’s Lower East Side.
In Nottage’s story, reportedly based in part on the experience of her own great-grandmother, a lonely 36-year-old African American corset-maker reaches out, by post, to a distant male correspondent she has never met. As she cannot read or write, Esther, the corset-maker (played by Quincy Tyler Bernstine), relies first on a wealthy white client (Kate MacCluggage), then her more amorous-minded friend, the prostitute Mayme (Jessica Frances Dukes), to compose her letters.
Her correspondent is George (Galen Kane), a young Barbadian engaged in the grueling work of building the Panama Canal. Typical of people in epistolary relationships, Esther and George read between the lines of these exchanged letters, creating an image of the other that doesn’t line up with who they actually are. Inevitably, their meeting will be a challenge in reconciling dream and reality.
The two strangers finally do meet, on their wedding day. Esther wears a beautiful dress made from yardage of white lace, a gift from a man who does know, understand, and appreciate her, the gentle Jewish cloth merchant, Mr. Marks (Tasso Feldman). He and Esther visibly yearn for connection, while all-too-aware of the cultural and religious barriers that separate them.
George, by contrast, turns out to be rough-edged, sexually demanding, and costly in every way. Esther can’t say she wasn’t warned. Her cautious landlady (Brenda Pressler), gossiping and busying herself around the boarding house, is into everyone’s business. However, she is genuinely fond of Esther, her boarder for almost two decades.
The cast of the McCarter production is excellent, especially Bernstine, who appears in every scene, and the ragtime-playing Dukes. Although her piano-playing is a theatrical illusion, she pantomimes playing the jazzy tunes with gusto. Thanks to Nicole Pearce’s lighting, the set design from Alexis Distler enables a half-dozen different “rooms” within a single scaffolded backdrop and minimal furnishings, and it echoes the “New York under construction” meme of Hamilton.
Those strengths aside, the play itself is disappointing. The story is sadly predictable, and Nottage has chosen to tell it almost entirely in two-person scenes. Interspersed is an occasional monologue (George reading “his” letters to Esther—a bit of a puzzler there, since it turns out he didn’t write them). It’s like going to a concert of nothing but duets. You long for a trio or a chorus number to break up the pattern and provide an energy boost. There’s too little of the vitality of the time and none of the cacophony of the locale, which may be a feature of this production rather than the play itself. But see it for the fine performances.
For tickets, call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the ticket office online.