January 22, 2020

Artistic Friends Reunite, Hidden Conflicts Erupt in “Goodnight Nobody”; Rachel Bonds’ Tragicomedy Premieres at McCarter, Features Dana Delany

“GOODNIGHT NOBODY”: Performances are underway for “Goodnight Nobody.” Directed by Tyne Rafaeli, the play runs through February 9 at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre. While discussing the frustrations of parenthood with a new mother, K (Ariel Woodiwiss, right), Mara (Dana Delany, center) tells a story that embarrasses her grown son, Reggie (Nate Miller, left), who was friends with K in high school. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Goodnight Nobody is receiving its world premiere at McCarter Theatre, which commissioned the show from playwright Rachel Bonds. This tragicomedy depicts a weekend during which artistic friends reunite, but an initially affable atmosphere becomes contentious when buried feelings erupt.

The effect of motherhood on the life of a creative person is one of several themes that are examined in Goodnight Nobody. The play also offers a more general exploration of inter-generational relationships, including romantic entanglements. It also considers situations in which jovial conversations mask feelings of deep pain that unexpectedly collide.

Mara, an acclaimed sculptor who is in her late 50s or early 60s, lives in a rustic farmhouse in upstate New York. She is dating Bo, a painter who is her age. However, she also has romantic feelings for Nan, a successful artist who is in his 30s — the same age as Mara’s son, Reggie.

To the character of Mara, Emmy Award-winner Dana Delany brings commanding stage presence and smooth, often wry, line delivery. The performance poignantly juxtaposes early scenes, in which Mara bluntly recalls the exasperating aspects of child care, against a later one in which she attempts to be more warmly maternal.

Nan is the most spiritual character in the play, so Saamer Usmani’s introspective portrayal is apt. At the beginning of the show we see Nan immersed in the creation of a painting; when Mara walks in on him he reveals that he has been working on it for much of the night.

In the subsequent scene the farmhouse becomes the setting for a reunion of Nan with two friends he knew in high school. One is Reggie, a struggling comedian who is portrayed, with suitable flamboyance, by Nate Miller. The other is K, a married teacher who is the mother of a new baby (from whom she is away for the first time). Ariel Woodiwiss deftly captures the veneer of exuberance that masks K’s stress.

Ken Marks is adept at depicting Bo’s sincerity and admiration for Mara. However, one wishes that his character could be developed further. The relationship between the two could be more fully defined, as it is not entirely clear what Mara feels for Bo.

Asta Bennie Hostetter’s costumes highlight links between Mara and other characters. In a scene between Mara and K — the other mother in the show — both women are dressed in outfits punctuated by leopard spots. Elsewhere Mara wears a sleek black dress, echoing the dark palette usually worn by Nan. By contrast Reggie sports a loose-fitting, bright red plaid shirt, in keeping with his personality, which often is garish.

The play’s title is derived from a page of Goodnight Moon (1947). In Margaret Wise Brown’s renowned book for children, a bunny says “goodnight” to everything in a single room. Illustrator Clement Hurd’s drawings for the story often are elaborate; this is abruptly contrasted by a page which is left white and blank, except for the words “goodnight nobody.”

In an interview published on McCarter’s website, Bonds describes her reaction to the page to 2018-2019 Literary Apprentice Liam Gibbs: “I don’t remember this! It’s so creepy!” In the play this sentiment is echoed by one of K’s lines of dialogue. Bonds says that the phrase “really haunted me. It carries so much loneliness and longing.”

That sober mood is reinforced by the underscoring with which composer and sound designer Daniel Kluger punctuates the ends of scenes. The reflective, mournful music contradicts the deceptively jovial tone of some of the dialogue.

Like Brown’s story, much of Bonds’ play takes place in an elongated room. Echoing Hurd’s illustrations, Kimie Nishikawa’s detailed set places a bed on the audience’s right, albeit on an upper level.

Food, too, is a common element. In the storybook the bunny says goodnight to a bowl of mush; Nan spends much of the first half of the play cooking, which he does first for Mara, then for his friends. (The smell of bacon adds a layer of realism.) Reggie complains to his mother about an unpleasant memory from his childhood; he does not like apricots after being forced to eat one, by a strict caregiver to whom he was entrusted by Mara.

Mara, in turn, embarrasses Reggie, by telling K about the difficulty she experienced in getting him to sleep through the night when he was a baby. These exchanges are presented with an air of wry amusement, but they hint at deeper-rooted resentments.

Through movement and pacing, director Tyne Rafaeli’s staging underlines an area in which the play sharply departs from the storybook. While the room in Brown’s story is characterized by quiet calm, bustle and chatter pervade Mara’s farmhouse.

On the surface many of the conversations appear to be inconsequential. K, Nan, and Reggie airily discuss former classmates, as one would expect of friends who knew each other in high school. A discussion of K’s movie preferences leads to an impromptu musical performance from Reggie, in an entertaining sequence.

However, this affable mood is punctuated by moments of foreboding. K and Reggie drink conspicuous amounts of alcohol. One character, rather too casually, repeatedly utters the line “Goodbye forever,” an ominous variant on the play’s title.

Bonds has a gift for capturing everyday conversations while relishing the use of sounds offered by the English language. In a memorable line, K describes a former classmate as “a lady in yoga pants buying yogurt at Stop & Shop.” Woodiwiss delivers the comment with a sing-song tone of voice that makes the most of the line’s rhythm.

But these conversations become a double-edged sword. As clever and amusing as they are, they tend to occupy too much stage time. This includes the exchange described above, which dwells on different types of yogurt containers. The characters are engaging, but this writer wishes that more of the dialogue could have been spent on their history and relationships.

Wisely the production avoids interrupting the energy and mood with an intermission. Nevertheless the play can be divided into two distinct parts. It is in the latter half, which takes the characters outside for a moonlit bonfire, that Jen Schriever’s lighting is particularly striking.

It is in this part of the show that conflicts erupt — and consequently the segment is the most engaging. When the characters physically move into the open air, their hidden, darker feelings also come into the open.

Nan abruptly gives voice to his varying opinions of K and Reggie, who quarrel. The relationship of Nan and Mara also takes a poignant turn. Mara and Reggie have an argument that bookends their earlier comments to each other. In an epilogue that is beautifully staged by Rafaeli, and exquisitely lit by Schriever, Mara and K approach each other from opposite sides of the stage to have a final conversation.

It is with moments such as these that Goodnight Nobody is at its most compelling. If the play leaves one wishing for greater focus in some scenes, it is because it has worthwhile things to say, through an intriguing cast of characters.

Goodnight Nobody will play at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre, 91 University Place in Princeton, through February 9. For tickets, show times, and further information call (609) 258-2787 or visit mccarter.org.