A sweary, talky charmer-of-a-play, Jennifer Who Is Leaving (★★★★☆) is a nice little analog ticker in a world full of smartwatches. When so many plays are fighting to get above the fray with guess-me-if-you-can concept angles or gut-wrenching shockers, this hour or so in the lives of everyday people feels positively cozy.
And if playwright and director Morgan Gould’s message — that women do too much — seems almost quaint compared to the rest of the field, it is by no means simplistic.
Set in a wintry 24-hour Dunkin Donuts near a bridge to Cape Cod, Jennifer’s slice-of-Massachusetts-life revolves around Nan, working the night shift, and her increasingly fractious customers — carer Jennifer and her elderly wheelchair-bound charge, Joey. The pair are camping out at a table, waiting on a tow truck that is apparently delayed.
Joey is a handful, and both Jennifer and Nan take turns placating him with food and attention. High-schooler Lili soon turns up for her shift only to discover that she isn’t needed and then she too is marooned, waiting on a lift.
As the minutes tick by, we are immersed in the way time gets killed under the glare of fast-food fluorescence (skillfully rendered by set designer Paige Hathaway and lighting designer Emma Dean). And it is in this amorphous nowhere and everywhere place that Gould finds her sweet spot.
Nan, it turns out, spends her shifts managing phone calls from a husband who needs micro-managing, while the quietly-troubled Jennifer is barely registering the provocations of the irascible Joey. Lili is on the eve of her SATs, feeling agitated and unprepared for a test she sees as her chance for a future that doesn’t include shifts at Dunkin.
Cleverly, time itself is a plot-driver here: how long before Nan will be home to resume her usual duties? Will Lili get the study time she needs if the snow cancels her exam? And — most importantly — is Jennifer getting closer to the biggest decision of her life?
Sitting in the middle of it all is Joey, who begins to turn a very particular kind of screw. At first an amusing nuisance, he increasingly becomes a symbol of far more — an embodiment of facets of a certain type of male-hood: something childlike, that is at once helpless, angry and determined to wield control.
Gould is notably thinking big, and her comments on gender dynamics don’t stop at Nan and Jennifer, married and working-class. Using the actor playing Lili — perhaps envisioned in her future, well-educated and accomplished self — she asserts that unfairness cuts across class and economic power.
As sincere as the messaging becomes, there is humor in the suggestion of Nan’s home life, Lili’s histrionics and some of Joey’s transgressive antics. For those who delight in it, there is also, alas, a cringe-worthy crowd-pleaser involving a breakout dance to the Dunkin soundtrack.
Although this God-awful device should be given the shallow grave it deserves, here at least there is — in retrospect — a convincing reason for Jennifer’s frantic enthusiasm. In addition to this unfortunate interlude, Gould’s dialogue isn’t always as quick and clever as it might be and if the story had gone a layer or two deeper, it would’ve been welcome.
What puts paid to these few shortcomings is a stellar ensemble that carries this intimate story to its potent finale with tremendous sympathy and skill. The cornerstone here is Nan, played by the incomparable, if slightly miscast, Nancy Robinette. Although she commands her space with a compelling and authentic presence, her calls with her husband never quite capture the cadence of a New England-style Lazy Boy marriage nor the accent.
But — and it’s a big but — when it comes to the true drama at the heart of this play, all of Robinette’s brilliance comes to the fore. The way she brings a kind of It’s a Wonderful Life energy and sense of hope to Jennifer’s life-defining crisis is pure magic.
If Robinette is the anchor, Kimberly Gilbert as Jennifer is the perfectly-pitched destabilizer. A jewel in the crown at Woolly Mammoth, here Gilbert delivers one of her many beautifully-drawn contemporary characters, this time embodying a family-worn woman facing the terrifying frontier of choice and change.
From her stoic affect to her excellent accent to the very way she moves, Gilbert suggests an entire life — her overflowing laundry baskets and the back of her TV-watching husband’s head practically hover in the air. Her world and her psyche are utterly three-dimensional, as is her fear and her bravery. In the last decisive moments, she and Robinette bring a priceless precision and chemistry.
As the troublesome Joey, another joy to behold is Floyd King who understands wholly that he is playing more than a grumpy old man. As pitch-perfect as his comic timing is, King also masters the art of the meaningful interruption, which is no small feat. Gould gives him a uniquely challenging role and King fully delivers the repugnantly charismatic irritant Joey needs to be.
Finally, as Lili, despite a somewhat underwritten role, Annie Fang is believable as the somewhat childish, bittersweet counterpoint to the two women who never had the opportunities she takes for granted. She times her inadvertently insensitive comments well, while always staying just as likable as she should be. Her most stunning moment comes with a searingly well-delivered monologue, a brief break of the fourth wall that genuinely builds the power and emotion of the piece.
Small but wonderfully formed, Jennifer Who Is Leaving is a refreshing reminder that not all great theater has to break transgressive ground or shock. Sometimes all it needs to do is tell a little something about just how it is.
Jennifer Who Is Leaving runs through May 7 at the Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, Md. Tickets are $46 to $81. Call 240-644-1100, or visit www.roundhousetheatre.org.
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