NOTHING IS PERFECT in life, and neither is playwright David Adjmi's Strange Attractors or its world-premiere production at the Empty Space (through Feb. 16). But both ultimately triumph, ironically, with a tale about our society's false idea of perfection.
All the right notes: Heidi Schreck's the draw in Strange Attractors.
Adjmi uses Ibsen's A Doll's House, the revelatory 19th-century classic about a wife's emancipation, as inspiration for this pitch-black comedy about the trampling of the human spirit in the 21st century. Ibsen's Nora is now Betsy (Heidi Schreck), a giddy, well-to-do mother and clotheshorse housewife who swears allegiance to the plastic joys and conventional goodwill of the holiday season, despite the protests of her jaded MTV-exec husband, Josh (always reliable Ian Bell)—and despite the fact that she's spending some unconventional free time voluntarily whoring herself to the bad will of a stranger who is brutally beating and demeaning her.
Betsy's cheerful mask, of course, eventually starts to slip. Encased in her multi-windowed manor (set designer Matt Smucker's oversized, many- layered Barbie Dream House is a wonder), she is forced by circumstance to look further inward. She confides her wild infidelities to old college acquaintance Vanna (Shelley Reynolds), a jobless, blowsy urbanite with volatile childhood scars—"I have worked through my anger," she swears unconvincingly. "What you see now is residual"—before being black- mailed by Alexander (Duke Novak, seething in terrific comic frustration), a lonely pedophile who was fired by Josh and is now harassing Betsy in righteous vengeance.
Adjmi has ample opportunity here to dis the upper classes, and, boy, does he—often to the play's detriment. The text is just a hair too smug in its satirical, Ordinary People territory: Stripping away the twinkling exterior of moneyed white people is nothing new, and neither is the accompanying parodic therapy-speak (including a tired bit that has Vanna breaking down over a Barbie, which would never have worked were Reynolds not such a force of nature). And husband Josh, despite his own secrets, doesn't have enough chances to display his humanity; Adjmi relies on a late-play revelation to give the man some meaning. Director Chay Yew, too, is a bit happy with the poses and underplays the touching camaraderie that develops between Betsy and Vanna.
But the play is still an engaging consideration of the complexities of modern desire. And even if the production had failed, it would still have Schreck's performance—an indelibly gentle and crushing embodiment of a soul in transit. Her work here so consistently hits all the necessary notes that you may wonder if she can keep it going, if her frenzied yammering will deepen and resonate. It does. Schreck's ingratiating ebullience just barely conceals the bruised confusion that Adjmi has so adeptly constructed; she's like Goldie Hawn with an ethereal gravitas. "Sometimes I wish I could go further with it. Do you know what I mean?" Betsy asks Vanna hopefully, recounting her S&M escapades with a mix of fear and wonder. "I'm a very spiritual person, and this is a part of that." Credit goes to Adjmi and Yew that this personal inquiry feels both funny and strangely universal. That it also feels human is an accomplishment all Schreck's own.