Interim at Margo Jones Theater

Interim is a previously unproduced play by American playwright Barbara Cassidy having its world premiere this week at the Margo Jones Theater.

The play is about a woman – Joya - at the time of her 50th birthday.  She has lost her zest for life – has stopped painting, isn’t interested in her daughter’s activities, hasn’t seen old friends for 10 years.  She is having trouble remembering events from high school.  She is drinking, smoking, and taking Xanax (1 mg. hidden in her underwear drawer) to cope with depression.

Her husband – Jim - has lost patience with her malaise and seems to shore up his own internal response to his age by declaring repeatedly how fulfilled his life is with their 8 year old – Alma; how she is the best thing he’ll ever do; and how much he loves and adores her.

Meanwhile, a pair of telephone service technicians acts out a subplot about the importance of splicing cable well and who is the best at it.  One of the technicians is an apprentice to the other and explains at length the vicissitudes of splicing.

Set Design

The floor of the set consists of a grid of squares, a moveable backdrop on wheels in three sections, a series of window frames suspended on cables, and a dining room table with three chairs angled at house left.  The grid is repeated on the backdrop sections.

I suppose the suspended window frames may be overused in the theater, but I thought they were imaginatively used in this play.  I especially liked how the designer used them to define two concurrent acting spaces in the scene in which Joya moves between the restaurant with her two high school friends and her house with Jim.

Jim has some interesting business throughout the play with regard to the floor grid.  He is constantly placing pillar candles at perimeter grid intersections – lining the stage with candles.  He then takes them up only to place them again. This bit of business reads as a metaphor for his attempt to avoid the feelings Joya is having by trying to create and maintain a sense of order and purpose in his life.  It reminded me of my dad’s regular habit of mowing of the lawn and washing of the car.  Life could be going to hell internally, but the lawn must be mowed and the car washed.  Order.  Denial.

The backdrop of the set – the three moveable gridded walls – is a multipurpose workhorse for the play. During the first scene, the phone technicians work on the backdrop silently behind Joya and Jim’s dialog.  They removed wall plates, installed a PVC pipe, and pulled cable through the pipe.  The audience finds out why later in the play.

During the scene when Joya meets her old high school friends for dinner - the dining table becomes a restaurant, one of the technicians plays the bartender, and a hidden shelf on the wall opens down to create a fully stocked bar.

Later, the two technicians catch cables thrown from the catwalk on each side of the stage.  They splice these cables to the ones they’ve previously pulled through the backdrop wall as they talk about whether their supervisor will show up and who is the best splicer.

In one of the best scenes in the show, the outer two walls are swung around to reveal the back of the set.  They each contain a huge tangle of telephone cable.  This tangle of cable is a metaphor for Joya’s age and depression - her past a great tangle of relationships and memories, connections and disconnects – both those remembered and those forgotten.  The dialog between the two technicians is about connections and splicing and features patched telephone dialog – some of it Joya trying to recall who she was with on a high school date that should have been pretty memorable – and was hysterically funny.

The final use of the back drop was during the surprise birthday party Joya didn’t want.  Her husband plans the party anyway to satisfy his need for what he thinks a person turning 50 should want.  During the party, Joya quietly exits the stage through a pair of hidden doors in the middle panel.  Unfortunately, the doors didn’t close correctly during the performance I saw so, slightly ajar, they didn’t become invisible again.  The plan was a great way to get her off the stage and out of the party even if the execution didn’t work perfectly.

The set was minimal but well designed and functional.  The furnishings provided enough backdrop to understand the scene and also allowed for the interesting character-building stage business with the candles for Jim and the cables for the technicians.

Costume Design

The opening scene has Joya in a nightgown and Jim mentions that Alma is almost home from school.  This clues the audience that she’s not getting dressed during the day and may be experiencing depression.

I also liked the intimacy and normality created by Joya and Jim’s underwear scenes – him in his boxers, her in her bra and slacks.  This is how people walk around at home, so it felt natural and right. 

However, the best designs had to be the use of the children’s clothes to convince the audience they were 8 year olds and not adults.  I liked the use of the solid colored dresses and the details of the bobby socks and shoes and hairstyles.  In a minute I believed that Alma and her friends were 8, not college students.

Later in the play, when some of the actors who had been playing children came to Joya’s birthday party in dresses and heels, they seemed like entirely different actors.  Likewise, the telephone technicians were hardly recognizable as old friends of Joya in their great scene after the party.

The costume design was low-key, understated, but well done.

Lighting Design

This is the first play I’ve seen in Margo Jones.  I liked that the hanging lights and the wing lights were exposed and visible to the audience.  The lighting designer did a creditable job of cueing the audience to time of day, location and ambience, and mood.  This is a show in which the lighting takes a back seat to the dialogue, so to have flashy lighting effects would have been distracting.

Probably my favorite lighting moment in the show was when the chorus members appear as little girls one-by-one around the catwalk.  Lit by spots, their solid-colored dresses were like a bunch of dyed Easter eggs, the sheer number of them and the volume of their voices was astonishing!

I know people who saw the play and found it depressing or unintelligible.  I didn’t feel that Joya was depressed.  I found her to be bored, displaying urban ennui, apathetic.  Unfortunately, that describes many people I know around Joya’s age – which I guess is the reason I believed the actors and playwright.  Instead of being depressing, I think Joya is on the verge of an epiphany that will change her life.

The play runs about 90 minutes and was an enjoyable afternoon of theater.