February 11, 2005

Steppenwolf's Intimate Apparel triumphs Wilde-ly with style over substance

I was reminded of Oscar Wilde after watching the production of Intimate Apparel at the Steppenwolf Theatre. He once declared that it is only shallow people who refuse to judge by appearances; the world of visibility is far more intriguing than what is cloaked underneath. How easy, I thought initially, to judge simply by the looks. Then I was convinced.

Lynn Nottage's play is about a black spinster named Esther, a turn-of-the-century seamstress skilled in her labor but weary in her failings to find a marriageable man. This is the premise of at least as many romantic novels and films as there have been years since, a formula so prosaic it would seem almost condescending to further delineate a plot that will in the end be met with several rejoinders: love, sex, desire, class, race, and money.

In her role as seamstress, Esther makes (as the title modestly suggests) intimate apparel. She delivers her creations—primarily women's lingerie—to special clients as wide and varied in socioeconomic and racial strata as the setting of New York City and its exclusive neighborhoods allow. One of them is Mrs. Van Buren, a buxom Fifth Avenue socialite (with hints of Faulknerian gothica) who has her own troubles with men. Another customer is Mayme, a glamorous prostitute and saloon entertainer from the red-light district. Mayme's financial independence sets her apart from other women, but what she really wants is a man to settle down with. The intimate setting of her boudoir glows with the exchanges between the women; in comparison, everything else in the play seems frivolous with ironed-out modern repression.

The first act is mostly composed of anecdotes and Todd Rosenthal's scenic designs work to that effect. (The play demands Esther move effortlessly from one spatial and temporal plane to another as the other characters summon her in call-and-response.) The problems begin once the play decides to focus on a subplot involving a Caribbean man working on the Panama Canal who woos Esther and seeks her hand in marriage. Parts of his speeches fly a mile high and are unforgettable: "I think of you running silk between your fingers and feeling holy relief." Such melodramatic lines sound odd coming from a rough laborer.

The plot thickens when Esther, who is illiterate, enlists the help of the two women to read the worker's letters. They are also to help Esther write back, but the contents of the letters are so exaggerated—and the women so immoral—that it shouldn't be too surprising that disaster is imminent. But the plot becomes especially spurious when the worker enters the scene, storming into the life of a secondary character for some spicy fun. I did wonder how the meeting of the pen pals would play out—all surface and no meaning? More interesting is the relationship Esther develops with her Hasidic garment seller. Their moments together are tender and beautiful and startling at the same time, but quaintly out of place with the rest of the play.

Still, watch Esther's hands slide over the yards of fabric. Where the production succeeds is in its presentation of Esther's work. Gray Scottish wool, blue flannel, and pink Japanese silk are put to splendid use to suggest everything you need to know. Costume designer Linda Roethke's replications of early century corsets are memorable. They help inform set designer Todd Rosenthal's thoughtful constructions of vertical poles and wires of white laundered shirts.

This brings me back to a recent conversation I had with a friend. My friend boldly asserted that no one ever takes Wilde seriously. But it is the colors and textures—in other words, the surface—that one remembers most vividly from Intimate Apparel. Wilde would definitely approve.