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The Suitcase under the Bed

Sarah Nicole Deaver & A.J. Shively. Photo by Richard Termine.


                                                By Marc Miller

The Mint Theater Company thinks very highly of Teresa Deevy—“undoubtedly the most brilliant playwright whose work I will ever have the privilege of re-introducing to the world,” writes artistic director Jonathan Bank in his program notes. Maybe, but the brilliance is only intermittently visible in The Suitcase under the Bed, the four Deevy one-acts now being revived at the Mint. Deevy (1894-1963), whose deafness for most of her life never hindered her creativity, and who enjoyed a long relationship with the Abbey Theatre that was cruelly taken away after a conflict with management, once wrote that a play should have “suspense, surprise, inevitableness.” The four miniatures represented here sometimes contain one or two, but never, to these eyes, all three.

About that title: It refers to, literally, a suitcase, actually two suitcases, found under a bed in Deevy’s family home in Waterford, containing her typescripts. Bank read through them all, and it’s hard to believe he couldn’t come up with a more compelling curtain raiser than the barely-there Strange Birth, a 15-minute sketch centered around Sara (Ellen Adair), the comely, resourceful housekeeper who celebrates the impending return of the son of the mistress of the manor (Cynthia Mace), placates two grumpy boarders (Gina Costigan and A.J. Shively), and entertains a proposal from the local postman (Aidan Redmond, who makes much out of little throughout). “You look like a summer morning,” he tells her, a fair representation of Deevy’s prose, often lyrical but seldom surprising. The main thing Strange Birth does is introduce us to a theme Deevy will revisit again and again, the limited romantic options of marriageable young ladies in the Irish hinterlands.

We also encounter it in In the Cellar of My Friend, wherein Belle (Sarah Nicole Deaver), infatuated with Barney (Shively), is pursued instead by his unappetizing, self-important barrister father (Colin Ryan). Barney’s leaving home, and there’s much prattle about train schedules, and some unnecessary business about a letter he’s written to her that gets chewed up by a dog. Deevy has a nice way of wrapping large feelings in small words, of having her characters vacillate and evade to avoid revealing their true selves to those around them. But this, too, is a very small story, sending us out into intermission with little to contemplate.

Happily, there’s more substance, and greater enjoyment, to be had in Holiday House, the evening’s only out-and-out comedy. The house is a seaside retreat, convincingly cluttered by set designer Vicki R. Davis, being readied for a clutch of visitors by the hapless Hetty (Deaver). Her two brothers are married, and both couples have complicated romantic histories with each other, about to erupt in amusing passive-aggressive encounters from the two wives; Adair, elegantly clad in costume designer Andrea Varga’s 1930s ensemble, gives great bitchy sangfroid. It’s a fun half-hour, but it contains contrivances, notably in the characters’ entrances and exits, and it ends unresolvedly, practically in mid-sentence.

The mood darkens considerably with The King of Spain’s Daughter. We’re on a country road being attended to by two laborers, one of whom (Shively) is not quite engaged to Annie (Deaver), the daughter of the other (Redmond, excellent again, and frightening). She’s something of the town slut, canoodling with a local loafer (Ryan) and self-dramatizing, inventing elaborate fictions about the society wedding she’s just witnessed. After some unasked-for counsel from a local biddy (Mace), she’s presented with two options by her abusive dad: marry her decent, unimaginative young suitor, or sign a five-year work contract and depart for a factory in another town. Deevy’s writing runs deeper here, with several characters who straddle good and bad, and the certitude that whatever Annie chooses, it won’t make anyone, least all her, happy.

Banks’s direction is, to put it mildly, leisurely, with dialogue pauses in all four playlets that you could drive a lorry through. Aside from Holiday House, Davis’s sets look a tad flimsy, painted flats topped by a curious paper cloud that hangs over all of them and signifies… fate? And while Vargas has furnished some attractive costumes, they’re not uniformly appropriate: Those for Strange Birth look vaguely 1960s, though Deevy’s writing is, and feels, a good deal older.

Anyone who keeps up with the Mint loves it for carrying out its mission of rediscovering neglected plays by frequently neglected authors, and I’ve enjoyed any number of worthy evenings there—including Deevy’s own Wife to James Whelan, which enlivened its 2010 season. The company loves her so much that in 2009 it created the Teresa Deevy Project, an effort to produce, publish, and otherwise keep her work alive. That’s commendable, but whatever qualities the Mint perceives in her oeuvre, these one-acts are a highly variable lot. There are plenty of early 20th century plays by other authors ripe for resuscitation; having brought these out, the Mint may want to put Teresa Deevy back in her suitcase for a while.

Off-Broadway play

Playing at the Beckett Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St., through Sept. 23; 212-239-6200