There’s no set, no props and no intermission, yet “Rearviewmirror,” the newest offering from playwright Eric Winick, keeps audiences captivated from the moment it begins. In fact, the Reverie Productions show, playing at the 59E59 Theaters on New York City’s Upper East Side, is almost barren in its simplicity. It features just three characters — Penn, Agatha and Inez — who though at first seem too different to have anything to do with one another, gradually tell an interweaving tale so strangely mesmerizing that 90 minutes are up before you even realize it.
The trio sit on simple wooden stools set up at the front of the stage and tell their stories to the audience. A disheveled looking Penn (played by the revelatory Mark Alhadeff), clad in sports jacket and open-necked shirt, is a production assistant on a movie filming in Brooklyn, he tells us. He is a Reform Jew who loves films and females (in no particular order), and who has forever harbored a fantasy of getting it on with an Orthodox girl. To his right sits Agatha (Audrey Lynn Weston), a free spirit whose parents forced her to return to the States after she got a little too religious for their liking while spending a year in Israel. To his left is Inez (Sarah Nina Hayon), an Orthodox woman from the Midwood section of Brooklyn who has always done anything and everything that her religion and her community have asked of her. The paths of these three intersect only barely, until they converge at an outdoor rock festival described toward the end of the production.
Penn and Agatha start it all off, telling a vivid tale of how and why they met and what Judaism means or has meant to them. Agatha speaks of losing touch with Orthodoxy when she returned home, and of finding something new to believe in when she happened upon the music of Michael Dionne, a singer/songwriter/guru whose followers christen themselves with new floral monikers — Agatha becomes Lilac — and dance around in the nude. Penn, we soon learn, had been Agatha’s boyfriend. When he met her, she had just returned from Israel and still wore the traditional ankle-length skirts that mark many religious girls. Despite Penn’s affinity for his girlfriend’s spirituality, Agatha quickly abandoned Judaism, falling in with Penn’s film fanatic friends. For a time, she found solace in the 1970s movies that Penn and his friends loved to dissect, such as “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Deliverance” and “The Last Detail.” But after an embarrassing movie trivia flub (which might have come off as trivial but is played out as devastating by a captivating Weston), she turns to the seductive and Dionysian Dionne.
Inez stays silent for much of the first half-hour, trying, it seems, to disappear into the ether. When she does utter a sound, her voice is at first tiny but then gains strength, and she gradually tells a powerful story of love found and lost in her community, and of running away. Her guilt is palpable. Hayon expertly plays her like a woman in suspended animation — sure, and yet unsure that she needs to get away from the only life she’s ever known, a life that’s begun to strangle her.
Director Carl Forsman skillfully allows us to get to the very essence of these characters. They have but the clothing on their backs and the words in their mouths with which to convey three separate lifetimes of heartache. Agatha simply stands to convey a point. Penn screams a curse word at the world. Inez’s eyes brim with the tears she longs to shed. Lesser actors easily could have rendered the production a laughable farce. Forsman, however, found three who know how to keep audiences riveted.
Winick’s script, largely inspired by Euripides’s “The Bacchae,” gets a lot of things right about Orthodoxy, including Inez’s garb, which includes a head covering that actually conceals every strand of her hair, and sleeves that go past her elbows. But it also misses certain things, albeit things that can be remedied easily. Hayon’s Inez pronounces “frum” as though it rhymed with “glum,” and says the word “sheitel” with a soft t instead of the hard one the word requires. While few beyond those who were born frum would likely notice the distinction, the audience is filled with a good number of Orthodox folk, so it’s distracting to hear these words come out of the mouth of one who looks authentically Orthodox but sounds ever so slightly off.
As a native New Yorker — one who grew up in Brooklyn — I enjoyed Penn’s and Inez’s descriptions of Coney Island’s KeySpan Park, as well as kosher restaurants Shang Chai, located in Mill Basin, and Essex on Coney, in Flatbush. The production felt familiar to me in a way that few others have in recent history. “Rearviewmirror,” the name of which may very well have been culled from a Pearl Jam song of the same name whose lyrics read, “United by fear/Forced to endure what I could not forgive/Saw things/Clearer/Once you were in my/Rearview mirror,” is a sad story of how sometimes, believing in anything — be it God, music or movies — can lead to both happiness and heartache. And how sometimes, the only way back from the brink of sorrow is to just keep on believing.
Leah Hochbaum is a freelance writer living in New York.