Review: NICE GIRL at Raven Theatre

Review: NICE GIRL at Raven Theatre

Pictured: Lucy Carapetyan, Benjamin Sprunger, Stella Martin and Lynne Baker. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

By Elizabeth Ellis

Jim Carrey is quoted as saying, “If you give up on your dreams, what’s left?” That’s a beautiful sentiment, and one that will remind most of us to focus on those elusive thoughts that lift us and carry great personal significance. But what if you never believed that you were special enough to have dreams, nor allowed yourself the space and time to even think about what, above a vague and ordinary existence, might be possible for you? What if you think that fundamentally, you just aren’t special enough? It’s these tough and painful questions that playwright Melissa Ross explores in her engaging and affecting play, NICE GIRL, given a graceful and heartfelt interpretation by director Lauren Shouse and a cast of four talented actors whose characters each struggle with who they are, and where, for better or worse, their lives have taken them.

It’s 1984 outside Boston, and Josephine Rosen (Lucy Carapetyan), in her late 30’s, lives a quiet life at home with her peevish mother, Francine (Lynne Baker), who likes to imagine herself as far more frail and helpless than she actually is. Josephine enjoyed a brief respite from her the stultifying existence at her home when she attended Radcliffe College on a scholarship. When her father developed a terminal illness during her freshman year, Josephine came home to tend to him in his final days, and never returned to Radcliffe, or attempted to finish her education at any other college. Josephine’s days now consist of sharing a bagel with her mother in the morning, going to her job as a secretary at an accounting firm, and coming home at night. With 40 only a few years away, she feels uneasy that this is all her life is going to be, that the opportunity to accomplish anything interesting or positive or remarkable, or to meet someone and fall in love, is slipping through her fingers.

Josephine finds the beginnings of friendship with a supportive coworker, Sherry (Stella Martin), who is in the throes of a frustrating affair with a married man. Sherry encourages Josephine to bust out of her drudgery and visit singles bars with her, and takes on Josephine as a personal improvement project. “How many times a day do you say yes to what you want to do, and not something someone else wants you to do?” Sherry asks, displaying a wisdom beyond her big hair and neon clothing.

Josephine takes the first steps towards a romance with an old friend from high school, local butcher Donny (Benjamin Sprunger), who, in the midst of unraveling his marriage to his high school sweetheart, also finds himself at odds with his station in life. While sitting on her front porch, Jo remarks wistfully to Donny that she was in the bathroom when the rule book for life was being handed out, Donny counters her. “Look,” he says, “I always did what I was supposed to do. Marry the girl I was supposed to marry. Be a butcher ’cause my father was a butcher. I wish I’d been in the bathroom too when they passed out the rule books, because I did all the things I was supposed to do. And I’m not sure I’m too happy.” The idea of following some rules that some unknown entity sets up recurs for all four characters, in varying degrees of expression.

In NICE GIRL, Shouse takes great pains to show us the monotony and predictable frustration that accompany established relationships, like the one between Josephine and Francine, as well as the nervousness and tentative exploration of both a new friendship (Josephine and Sherry), and a potential new romantic relationship (Josephine and Donny). Shouse doesn’t rush past the awkward moments; she lets the actors sit in the momentary discomfort, which allows them subsequently to form real connections.

Lucy Carapetyan has perhaps the most difficult task as Josephine. She must show us how average she is yet still be compelling enough to hold our interest, then make us cheer for her when she finally makes movements to break out; she does all of that wonderfully. Stella Martin’s Sherry could easily fall into a caricature (the loud and brassy party girl), but Martin imbues her with a fantastic warmth and depth, and you hope she’ll finally find a nice guy who deserves her. Francine, played alternately controlling and exasperating, then loving and supportive by the winning Lynne Baker, proves to be the final kick to pushing Josephine towards a better life. Benjamin Sprunger’s complex work as Donny shows a man struggling with the end of his marriage to the high school golden girl, but he also shows true care and affection to Josephine as they take their first few delicate steps towards dating.

Lauren Nigri’s and John Buranosky’s multi-purpose set and props, awash in neutral patterns, perfectly capture the feeling of so many 1980’s suburban homes and offices. Noel Huntzinger’s costumes and sound designer Eric Backus expertly capture the look and soundtrack of 1984.

There are a few quibbles to be sure: a plot twist revealed late in the script is understandable, but not entirely necessary; the Boston accents waver among the actors, but neither of these affect the overall impact of the excellent performances and the fine direction. You’ll go home and dig out an old journal to see what dreams you may have neglected as well.

NICE GIRL runs through March 11th. For more information visit raventheatre.com.

About author

Elizabeth Ellis

Elizabeth is an actor, playwright, musician, and a graduate of De Paul University. She studied theatre and improvisation at the Second City Training Center, the Actors’ Center, and at the Royal National Theatre Studio in London. Elizabeth has performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Tympanic Theatre, Congo Square Theatre, Second City's Children's Theatre, Stage Left Theatre, Bailiwick Arts Center, and London's Canal Cafe Theatre. Six of her plays have been chosen as part of the Abbie Hoffman and the Around the Coyote festivals.

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