Sherie Rene Scott is beautiful, blonde and busty, an inspired comic actress with an air of practiced innocence that makes her not only irresistible but also believable — a dangerous thing for an artist with larceny on her mind. In her new play, Whorl Inside A Loop, co-written with her creative partner Dick Scanlan (who also directs, with Michael Mayer), she plays The Volunteer, an inspired, etc., comic actress sent to a maximum-security prison to conduct 12 weekly workshops with hardened murderers who want to tell their stories.
The Volunteer expected something more along the lines of Jean Harris, the real-life lover-killer of Scarsdale Diet doctor Herman Tarnower, who served out her sentence in the comparatively cushy Bedford Correctional Facility teaching fellow female convicts how to improve their grades and be better parents. But in short order, The Volunteer, who seems remarkably similar to Sherie Rene Scott — same winsome, self-deflating sense of humor, same brash sexiness, same to-the-manner born stage grace — defeats her fear of being in a room with six killers (five if you believe the one who claims he’s innocent). Their stories overcome her like a mist of truth or compassion. She rocks to their rhythms. She gets them.
And she writes down every word they say, reporting it all back to her homeys — producer-husband, hair dresser, BFF (played by the same men who play her students). There’s a play in these mens’ intimate, soul-baring revelations, The Volunteer divines, following in the footsteps of such thieves as Michael Bennett (A Chorus Line) and Nora Ephron (whose mantra was “everything is copy”). Of course I mean that in the nicest way. The Volunteer connects with each inmate, helping him come to terms with himself and his destiny and that’s a fine thing, right?
The Volunteer has a secret of her own, one that makes us wonder whether she really is Sherie Rene Scott and, more important, whether we like her, whoever she is, as much as we thought we did. But that’s one more reason to have been entranced by this twisty work, performed with surprisingly deep eloquent power at Second Stage by Scott with Derrick Baskin, Nicholas Christopher, Chris Myers, Ryan Quinn, Daniel J. Watts and Donald Webber Jr.
Annie Baker won last year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her long play The Flick, about three ordinary young people working in a dying movie theater. With her frequent director Sam Gold (who also staged the Tony-winning musical Fun Home), Baker conjures scenes of life that appear to unfold in real time, which can drive you nuts if you’re not completely taken with the folks on stage. (It took me two viewings to warm to The Flick, which really was a lot of time.)
Baker’s new play, John, is even longer, clocking in at three-and-a-quarter hours, and it makes even less narrative sense than The Flick. And yet I loved it because I loved the four oddball, disconnected people in it and the way their stories intersect, carom off one another and then refuse to neatly resolve. I loved the appearance of a new element in Baker’s writing — an injection of the unknowable or supernatural into otherwise mundane lives that recalls the work of another great American poet-playwright, August Wilson (who, by the way, also took his time to tell a tale).
The setting is a bed & breakfast in the Civil War battlefield town of Gettysburg, PA. It’s a grand old house with an oak staircase, a Christmas tree and a million tchotchkes and gewgaws (Mimi Lien’s set is dazzling in its profusion). Arriving late on a November night are youngish couple Elias (Christopher Abbott) and his girlfriend Jenny (Hong Chau). They’re greeted by Mertis Katherin Graven (Georgia Engel, whom you remember, if you’re old enough, from The Mary Tyler Moore Show), who is elderly and chipper, blessed with the breathy voice and wide-eyed mien of a creased angel.
The fourth character is Mertis’ best friend and neighbor, the blind Genevieve (the always masterful Lois Smith), a self-proclaimed possibly recovering schizophrenic who excels at the eccentric recitative (do not get up when you think the second of John‘s three acts — three acts! — is over). The B&B may or may not be haunted. There’s a player piano with a mind of its own (and, like Mertis, a predilection for Cole Porter). The lights on the Christmas tree are either temperamental or controlled by something other than the power outlet. A doll gives off a sinister vibe from her perch by the staircase.
Against these vaguely freakish occurrences, we learn that Elias (New York Jewish musician raised by parents in a hippie-Esalen-type place near Big Sur) and Jenny (Asian, studious, writes questions for a quiz show) are in trouble. Finding out why is the action of the play, and if that seems reductive, too bad — because the beauty and the point of John is not the conclusion but the journey as these four make and break connections and struggle to make them again. A mobile phone plays a role, and I’m not giving too much away to say that it’s the only time in recent years that I’ve wanted to holler, “Turn off your damned phone!” not to a fellow audience member, but to one of the main characters on stage.
The Gold/Baker collaboration is impeccable and the performances are as true-to-life — even as predictable — as the unfolding tale they tell. It’s at the Signature Theatre and you shouldn’t miss it. (The Flick, by the way, is also running, downtown at the Barrow Street Theater.)