“We don’t haveta be just secretaries anymore and take this bullshit. It’s a different world for us than it was for our mothers, you know? We can be. Anything we want. Whadya wanna be Jo.”
Melissa Ross’s play Nice Girl should probably come with a warning for people nearing the age of 40: middle-age life contemplation ahead. Epic feelz are possible. Additional caution in the rotary if you grew up near Boston because this will all hit really close to home.
With a dark, sardonic wit, Ross’s Nice Girl directed by Mimi O’Donnell is a deceptively simple story that packs an emotional wallop through thoughtfully drawn characters and the ache of human frailty.
Josephine Rosen (Diane Davis) is 37 and still lives at home with her hypochondriac mother (Kathryn Kates). She started but never finished college. She’s working as a secretary. Jo is a nice girl. Everyone says so. She listens. She’s supportive. She’s friendly. She cries over veal. Even as she snipes at her mother and threatens to move out on the regular, she makes sure her mother has what she needs and she stays. She leads a pretty dull and repetitive existence. She dreams about trips she’s never taken. Life just happened to her or more accurately didn’t happen to her. When she befriends Sherry (Liv Rooth) at her office, Sherry encourages Jo to get out more. Sherry has a life full of drama but she’s never one to stop moving. When Jo bumps into an old high school classmate working as a local butcher, Donny (Nick Cordero), she thinks maybe he’s flirting with her. Their twenty-year reunion is around the corner and she wonders about going.
It’s a feat that with the drama being so internal, personal, and small, that Ross’s play remains gripping throughout. But like a spiritual cousin to a show like The Flick, Nice Girl embraces silence and micro-drama to build a rich tapestry of emotions out of these smaller moments. And though this is Jo’s story, all four characters get space and time to express their sadness, disappointment, confusion, and regret. No one is all good. No one is all bad. As each wrestles with the reality of their own life, the balance of time against what change is possible feels more and more acute.
The play grabs hold of you because it’s about these life-like characters that are painfully familiar. Ross constructs the fights between mother and daughter with such precision. Jo and her mother are fighting with love, but knowing exactly where to sting each other. As a child of the ’80s growing up in Boston suburb, much like the play’s, a formica dining room table where women are drinking Tabs, smoking cigarettes, and eating Lean Cuisines became a Proustian madeleine for me. Ross colors the piece with tiny details that fill out the time, region, and characters in smart, quick, pointed strokes – the mother who worries about putting out the “good candy” when visitors are coming, learning about fashion colours from Jane Pauley on The Today Show, and a lot of Boston area slang and references (ask your friends from Massachusetts to explain what “wicked pisser” means).
This is a world of modest dreams, and happiness always feels just slightly out of reach. Yet there is a sense of hope that gives momentum to the play. And in spite of the serious struggles of the characters, the play manages to be quite funny – sort embracing the spirit of you have to laugh or else you’ll cry.
The drama is enriched by a cast who digs deep into the characters they are portraying and a director who with exceeding clarity pares down each scene to its necessary elements. Diane Davis is luminous. Her pained, teary moments of silence are suffuse with conflict and emotion. When she says she’s dying a little every day, you feel it in your guts. Nick Cordero again turns in a character that is goofy and charming, handsome but approachable, beguiling and sweet. He even makes his character’s flaws almost endearing when he delivers them with such earnestness. I’ve seen him in a musical where he nailed big and loud comedy; here he’s turning in a delicate and quiet performance that’s agonizingly good. Liv Rooth’s Sheryl could easily fall into big hair ’80s parody but she keeps her on terra firma and never lets us laugh at her which makes her devastating. Of course, she also gets to deliver some of the funniest lines.
From the subtle costuming by Emily Rebholz to the modest middle-class set by David Meyer, both which say the ’80s without screaming it and the dialect coaching by Charlotte Fleck for the on-point Boston accents, director Mimi O’Donnell has created a believable universe for this human drama to unfold.