January 13, 2021

“Etta and Ella on the Upper West Side” Receives Online World Premiere; McCarter and Round House Theatre Honor “The Work of Adrienne Kennedy”

“ETTA AND ELLA ON THE UPPER WEST SIDE:” Round House Theatre, in association with McCarter Theatre Center, is presenting the world premiere of Adrienne Kennedy’s “Etta and Ella on the Upper West Side.” Directed by Timothy Douglas, the prerecorded video will be available online through February 28. Above: Ella (Caroline Clay) describes a contentious relationship between two sisters, both of whom are authors. (Video still courtesy of Round House Theatre)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

McCarter is partnering with the Round House Theatre (in Bethesda, Maryland) to present an online festival, The Work of Adrienne Kennedy: Inspiration and Influence.

Kennedy’s many awards include an Obie for Lifetime Achievement, and in 2018 she was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame. A press release notes that her plays are “taught in colleges throughout the country, in Europe, India, and Africa.”

This series, which has been a fitting tribute to an underperformed playwright, consists of prerecorded performances produced by the Round House. All four productions have been conceived with a theatrical sensibility, while taking advantage of the visual — even cinematic — possibilities offered by video.

The festival opened with He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box, which depicted young lovers, separated by physical space as well as their racial backgrounds. Their letters to each other illuminate America’s history of racial injustice. The excruciatingly relevant second installment, Sleep Deprivation Chamber, is inspired by the treatment Kennedy’s own son (and co-author) experienced at the hands of police officers. Ohio State Murders was the third play presented. While not as overtly autobiographical, it examines the racial prejudice Kennedy experienced on a mid-20th century campus.

Elements from all three of these plays appear, to varying degrees, in the final installment: Etta and Ella on the Upper West Side, which is receiving its world premiere via this festival. The multilayered, deceptively stream-of-consciousness piece — which runs a little over a half an hour — is a monologue, though multiple characters speak.

The text largely is written to sound like a novel, though there are fragmented descriptions that sound like stage directions. The speaker, identified in the program as Ella (portrayed by Caroline Clay), describes a rivalry between two sisters (the title’s Etta and Ella), both of whom are writers.

As the play opens we see a single desk in a room that is spacious but sparsely furnished. Lighting designer Sherrice Mojgani keeps the stage dim, except for a spotlight that focuses our attention on the desk. We hear piano music that is jazzy and insistent.

In a departure from previous productions in the festival, the stage directions are not read aloud. Rather, in keeping with the sisters’ literary backgrounds, elegantly printed captions appear on screen. The first reads, “There are scenes of the Hudson River and 89th Street.” Also consistent with the literary theme, Ella wears a scarf with erudite writing on it.

Ella closes her eyes as if trying to remember something, then sets the scene: “Etta lives…on 89th street, in a brownstone, in a room that faces a garden … it is a hot New York night.” Establishing the tension between the sisters, Ella morbidly alludes to “the strangling incident” that culminated “their public fights.”

Etta (who shares a first name with Kennedy’s mother) is described as “40, once beautiful, small, pale, dark hair (she wears it in an upsweep).” We learn that at the height of their success the sisters dressed elegantly, attended events at upscale hotels, and were quite popular.

But we hear about an incident in which Ella “had given a paper on the history of their childhood neighborhood in Ohio. In the elevator she burst into tears and said, ‘My paper didn’t have half the impact it should have’ in her presentation! My sister used parts of an interview I showed her, but I’m the one who spent the winter in Cleveland, talking to all of those people!’”

While delivering this passage Clay palpably lets Ella’s pain and anger inhabit her entire body, especially through tight facial tension. After a quick exhale, this abruptly gives way to mirthful laughter. Clay more than rises to the task of commanding the audience’s attention throughout the entire piece, giving a performance that is by turns foreboding and exuberant. With flair, Clay ruffles her scarf as Ella describes the sisters’ “corsages in 1940s black dresses.”

Kennedy inventively explores a question that lately has been a crucial one on the subject of the performing arts: who has the right to tell stories that others consider their own? (Who has the authentic point of view?) In this case, the issue of right of authorship is even thornier, because there is infringement committed by a family member after there has been collaboration on the dissemination of shared histories.

We learn that Ella has written about a play “about her sister’s devastating college years,” — a reference to Ohio State Murders — “and her play had received considerable attention in the Ohio press,” which “ignored Etta’s version of her own life (which had been performed earlier at the same theater), and considered it an inferior piece.”

Ella relates, “Troupe [a professor who is a one-time friend of Etta, who has extensively researched the sister’s lives] was determined to discover more what led to Ella’s strangling,” but that Etta, grows to distrust him — to the extent that, when he invites her to stay at his home, she wonders, “am I going to be murdered on Troupe’s stairwell?”

The poetic narrative becomes even more eerie: “Ella’s apparition visited Etta … Ella was happy to see how her sister’s countenance had changed … her color was gone, her lips pallid; fierce was her struggle between reason and madness.” Ella’s apparition (a figment of Etta’s guilty imagination?) leads Etta to the brink of murdering a character of whom she is fond.

This play shares with Ohio State Murders an obsession with film. The 1965 spy thriller The Ipcress File is mentioned in passing; and in a call to the precinct, Etta demands to know why her favorite theaters in Manhattan have been torn down. (One of Kennedy’s plays is titled A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White.)

In another self-reference, Kennedy’s play She Talks to Beethoven is directly mentioned. In the narrative its authorship is assigned to Etta, who hopes to complete it and have it performed.

In addition to facilitating and/or guiding Clay’s versatile performance, director Timothy Douglas sees that the production has unity of color; both Ella’s shirt and coffee cup are bright red. He also make the most of Lindsay Jones’ skilled sound design, which punctuates the monologue to heighten the foreboding atmosphere.

Since the play is available online until the end of February, audiences might want to take advantage of the ability to watch it multiple times, because there are details that might be difficult to catch the first time, and multiple viewings can yield new discoveries.

At the end of her extended speech Ella silently sits back for a moment — eyes closed, with a slight frown — as if reacting to everything she has just said. Then, she stands up and strides out as purposefully as she has entered, leaving audiences to process the engaging, if somewhat enigmatic, story she has told.

Round House Theatre’s world premiere production of Etta and Ella on the Upper West Side will be available to view online through February 28, 2021, as will the three other plays that are being presented by McCarter and Round House, as part of The Work of Adrienne Kennedy: Inspiration and Influence. For tickets, festival passes, and further information visit mccarter.org.