They say Seattle is a great theater town, but it does have a few faults. The worst of its seven deadly sins: niceness. You can see it in certain productions and in even more audiences—a sentimental addiction to the sunny side, a latitudinarian policy on standing ovations, an uncontrollable compulsion to react to painfully poignant moments with an easy, indulgent chuckle.
Appealing to our excessively generous instincts is Jacqueline Moscou's Intiman production of Lynn Nottage's Intimate Apparel, a patchwork theater piece inspired by Nottage's family history in the New York lingerie seamstress business circa 1905. Her heroine is Esther (Gwendolyn Mulamba), a black Southerner whose nimble fingers won her a tenuous place in tough Gotham society. Rather schematically, the customers for her frilly, fanciful unmentionables include one sex-starved white Fifth Avenue plutocrat's wife (Mari Nelson) and one down-and-dirty, ragtime-piano-pounding black hooker with a heart of gold and a mouthful of sass (Yvette Ganier).
Esther is closer to the underclass hooker, but her personal predicament is more akin to the Fifth Avenue lady. The only suitors in her life are the revolting fat fools her meddlesome landlady (Demene E. Hall) keeps threatening to haul in from offstage but mercifully keeps out of sight thanks to Esther's scrappy refusal to settle for less than grand passion. The guy she obviously ought to marry is the Jewish shmate merchant she buys her fabrics from (Marc Jablon), but this is 1905, so the interracial thing would be unthinkable. Instead of going for the clinch we keep yearning for, they engage in steamy talk about the sensual allure of silks, the sexiness of arabesque. Props to Deb Trout for sewing up some festively polychrome costumes of desire.
Poor Esther. She's gotten pretty far in a racist society, but she isn't getting any and ain't gonna. The play might've been titled The 35-Year-Old Virgin. So she somehow hatches a plot to spark an epistolary relationship with a Panamanian laborer (Albert Jones) digging the canal with bulging biceps and big old fingers that could probably rip an aging maiden's undie buttons off with a flick—if her heaving bosom hadn't popped them first. Being illiterate, Esther solicits love-letter-writing help from her customers. Soon she gets mash notes in return from her Panama man.
The big problem with the play as written is the fact that there's only one character in it. Esther is marvelously appealing, an emitter of aria after aria in musical period argot. We get her plight. But everyone around her is a monochrome cardboard cutout. The landlady is nosy—that's it. No shading, no development. The Fifth Avenue lady is lovelorn, ignored by her rich-bastard husband (she also eventually reveals one character secret, but it's just contrived jive that doesn't really deepen her or propel the plot or connect to Esther's character at all). The happy hooker is a fantasy of upbeat libertinism, and her friendship with Esther unconvincing. And oy, the Panama man! He's like a cardboard cutout of Mandingo.
The swain is a swine, of course, which we sense from his first missive. Esther might as well wear a sign reading, "Kick Me, Sexist Pig." Nottage tries to supply him with a motive for being a faithless ne'er-do-well, but he amounts to a motiveless malignity with a ridiculous accent. The plot is predictableness itself.
Despite these big reservations, I don't necessarily disagree with the theater bigwigs (like The Seattle Times' Misha Berson, who not only runs this town but weighs in nationally) who showered Intimate Apparel with awards. It's mostly a succession of soliloquies by its sole round character, but what soliloquies! Nottage is a true poet, enchanting and evocative of vanished times. Somewhere, her ancestor is dancing jigs to be immortalized in Esther. And Mulamba is absolutely winning in the role. Gal can't find a man, but we fall in love with her at first sight—or rather, sound. She makes Nottage's lines sing like seraphim.
I believe Berson when she testifies that Seattle Rep émigré Dan Sullivan's New York production was vastly superior to Moscou's. Sullivan's rather saturnine temperament was just what Seattle's sweetness needed, and this play brings out the worst in our dramaturgical sweet tooth. Let's face it, Esther's life is a romantic tragedy—but Seattle audiences cry out as one, "Let's NOT face it!" Here, her thwarted moments of bliss are reduced to cuteness.
The production bleaches the sorrow right out of the show's fabric. And naturally, much of the crowd rewarded this with a standing ovation. I hereby sentence them all to watch Albee's play about bestiality and gory divorce. That'll teach them a lesson or two about true intimacy.