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Theater Review - What lies beneath

Intimate Apparel

Words can conceal nakedness as much as clothes do in the Alliance Theatre's Intimate Apparel, directed by Susan V. Booth. In Lynn Nottage's tale of a lovelorn African-American seamstress in 1905 Manhattan, words and garments alike camouflage secret imperfections and accentuate the best features. Only in unguarded places, like marriage beds and changing rooms, do people glimpse each other's personalities in the raw.

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At the play's outset, Esther's (Roslyn Ruff) only soulmate appears to be her sewing machine. She labors to make undergarments for clientele as diverse as Mrs. Van Buren (Rhoda Griffis), a frustrated white socialite, and Mayme (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), an African-American prostitute. Esther's work defines her life, and she lives alone in the rooming house of Mrs. Dickson (Andrea Frye), an imperious dowager who takes a motherly interest in all her boarders.

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Esther and her fabric supplier, Mr. Marks (Tzahi Moskovitz), an orthodox Jewish immigrant, entertain a mutual attraction while admiring sheets of satin and silk but the chance of a relationship between them seems impossible. When Esther receives letters from a strange man with a tenuous connection to her church, she clings to them like a lifeline. George Armstrong (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson) hails from Barbados but works as part of a massive crew on the Panama Canal project, and begins courting Esther sight unseen by mail. The twist is that Esther cannot read or write, so she alternately enlists Mrs. Van Buren and Mayme to craft her replies to him.

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In the first act, the letter-writing scheme turns out to be a compelling touch worthy of a Latin American magic realist novel. After an initially slow setup, Intimate Apparel unveils interesting and original perspectives on how people connect. As George's letters evoke the epic, brutal scale of building the tropical canal, the canal itself serves as a huge-scale symbol of bringing strangers together. From Esther's point of view, corsets and undergarments unify classes, since Mrs. Van Buren and Mayme wear the same unmentionables. Luxurious fabric even provides a way for the lonely seamstress to think about and express her own sensuality.

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Nottage doesn't lose sight of race in Intimate Apparel. When Mrs. Van Buren suggests that Esther is her best friend, Esther asks why, then, has she always entered through the back door. Mr. Marks recoils when his hand accidentally touches Esther's. When she says "It won't rub off" (meaning her color), he explains that he's forbidden by his religion to touch a woman who is not his wife. The play treats 1905 Manhattan as a melting pot: African-American Mrs. Dickson, played with queenly humor by Frye, stands as proud and successful as any uptown counterpart. Mayme, richly portrayed by Bernstine, isn't just a prostitute but a trained, failed musician and a far more complex character than you expect.

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Moskovitz's portrayal of Mr. Marks seems too contemporary and cute, as if the man was scarcely touched by the deprivations of the immigration experience. Griffis, paradoxically, has credibility as an unhappy 1905 society matron who also resonates with her contemporary Buckhead counterparts. Ruff carries herself as if 35 years of thankless toil left its toll on her face and posture, making her flickers of happiness seem all the more fragile and poignant. She'd make an ideal Tennessee Williams spinster, or could play Celie from The Color Purple.

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Act One ends with Esther making a leap of faith and marrying George, even though they've barely met face-to-face and know each other only by mail (not unlike a contemporary e-mail love affair). The delicate tapestry of Intimate Apparel's first act, disappointingly, gives way to a more conventional, cautionary melodrama in the second. The play's downbeat ending, however plausible, is frustrating not just because of its melancholy tone. In much of Intimate Apparel, Nottage's imagination stitches together human ties in new and surprising ways. With its pessimistic resolution, Intimate Apparel's most lovely and ingenious qualities come unraveled.

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curt.holman@creativeloafing.com