One Shoe Off
by Tina Howe

This comedy about marriage, fidelity, adulterous longings, existential panic and the theatre takes place in Leonard and Dinah's up state New York Greek revival farmhouse where slow moving disintegration is at work. Rooms are drifting into each other and trees and saplings have taken root indoors. Leonard is an actor who hasn't worked in eleven years; Dinah is an overworked costume designer who can't dress herself. They have invited their new neighbors, an overworked editor who delights in reciting nursery rhymes and his beautiful movie startet wife, for dinner. Things explode when a friend who is a successful movie director, drops in Old memories stir and new passions kindle as vegetables and Dinah's costumes fly.

At the Joseph Papp Public Theater/Anspacher Theater

Directed by Carole Rothman; set by Heidi Landesman; lighting by Richard Nelson; costumes by Susan Hilferty; sound by Mark Bennett; hair by Antonio Soddu; production stage manager, Jess Lynn; stage manager, Gregg Fletcher; associate producer, Carol Fishman. Presented by the Second Stage Theater, Ms. Rothman, artistic director; Suzanne Schwartz Davidson, producing director.

Leonard . . . Jeffrey DeMunn
Dinah . . . Mary Beth Hurt
Clio . . . Jennifer Tilly
Tate . . . Daniel Gerroll
Parker . . . Brian Kerwin

New York Times
April 16, 1993

Combine Characters, Toss Madly And Serve
By Frank Rich

It's not just a jungle out there in Tina Howe's apocalyptic new comedy, "One Shoe Off"; the jungle has come inside, too. In Heidi Landesman's delicious set, a macabre marriage of Charles Addams and George Booth, a two-story Greek Revival farmhouse in upstate New York has been invaded by gnarled trees that push through splintered floorboards, snake in and out windows, and impale the roof. When the occupants of this madhouse, Leonard (Jeffrey DeMunn) and Dinah (Mary Beth Hurt), tidy up, they don't vacuum; they rake.

Housekeeping is the least of this couple's problems, however. Leonard, an actor, hasn't worked in 12 years. Dinah, who keeps popping manically in and out of her bedroom closet in search of the mode juste, is, as her husband puts it, "one of life's ironies, the costume designer who can't dress herself." And guess who's coming to dinner? A long-lost friend (Brian Kerwin), now a big-shot Hollywood director, who may or may not have had an affair with Dinah long ago, and some new neighbors, an arrogant book publisher (Daniel Gerroll) and his starlet wife (Jennifer Tilly), who are about as much fun as Nick and Honey in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

To put it mildly, "One Shoe Off" finds Ms. Howe, the author of such lyrical ruminations on love, family and art as "Painting Churches" and "Coastal Disturbances," in a black mood. Sterile marriages, bankrupt friendships, empty bank accounts, vanished children, grotesque highway accidents, kitchen fiascos, bad weather and show-biz chicanery are just some of the calamities facing her characters and their dinner party. When Dinah finally does settle on an outfit, it's Chekhov black; Ms. Howe is in mourning for everyone's life.

The playwright's daring in trying to spin comedy out of despair is admirable. But "One Shoe Off," a Second Stage production being presented in larger, rented quarters at the Joseph Papp Public Theater, never offers the terrifying glimpse into the abyss that its set and its "Job"-like parade of catastrophes promise. Worse, the script's highly cultivated brand of humor, a somewhat Giraudouxian poetic whimsy that makes ironic use of lines from nursery rhymes (the play's title included), falls flat. The tone is so fey that when the characters reminisce about their youthful glory days of playing Greek tragedy, Restoration comedy and theater of the absurd in repertory, you wonder if Ms. Howe is now asking them to play all three at once.

One could argue that the director, Carole Rothman, also bears responsibility for the strained ditsiness that clatters so hollowly about the stage. Ms. Hurt, for instance, plays Dinah at an almost consistently hysterical pitch, at the pinched vocal juncture where sobbing meets laughter, and Mr. DeMunn is frequently asked to express Leonard's desperation in the tics and manic gesticulations of a man with a straitjacket in his near future. But "One Shoe Off" is not a naturalistic play, and Ms. Rothman and her good cast had little choice but to go for it, with performances as stylized as the writing. When writing that rides on so highly lacquered a surface lets actors down, they inevitably look or sound ridiculous, for there is no net.

The cast has its moments here and there. Ms. Hurt, serving salad from a Lucite bowl "big enough to take a bath in," delivers a wonderfully demented aria about the secret life of plants and vegetables, and eventually indulges in a one-sided food fight that recalls Ms. Howe's early "Art of Dining." Mr. DeMunn, reduced to begging a job from the director who may have cuckolded him, offers an affecting portrait of a drowning man, and his brief visitations to Leonard's long-ago stage triumphs in "Richard II" and "Cyrano" leave a surprisingly deep aftertaste. The young Ms. Tilly, whose arresting beauty is refreshingly subverted by a sandpaper voice, and Mr. Kerwin, whose slightly bloated and spoiled Hollywood bearishness is just right, turn a routine extramarital groping into low farce. Mr. Gerroll is as light a heavy as possible as the self-important editor in chief of a house darkly named Raven Books.

But the journey from soup to nuts, both narrative and metaphysical, that links the evening's occasional oases is slow going. Ms. Howe hits most of her characters' calamities and jokes as heavily as the piano chords that punctuate each scene. (The costume designer, Susan Hilferty, offers no wit of her own to rescue the many, many wardrobe gags.) When the time comes to turn sober, the playwright's voice of doom seems as mechanical as her comic conceits. ("It's dark out there and very dangerous. There's a randomness at large . . .") From there, it's on to an unconvincing uplifting ending that reverses all that has come before.

Both in "One Shoe Off" and in her last effort, a determinedly chipper piece about mortality titled "Approaching Zanzibar," Ms. Howe initially seems eager to reach into more painful and daring territory than in her fine earlier works, yet soon retreats into baroque overwriting that keeps her material and her audience at a distance. You wish she would follow the lead of Ms. Landesman's twisted trees and rip through the arch domestic facade that increasingly seems to inhibit her plays.