PRINCETON — One day, I’d like to see a dinner party onstage where everyone is still on good terms by dessert. Or a tragedy where the soothsayer’s prophecy doesn’t come true. Or a work presentation that goes off hitchless, a cross-dressing disguise that fools no one, a gun that misses.
Formulas work; that’s why they became formulas in the first place. But they still need subverting.
“Goodnight Nobody,” Rachel Bonds’s restless, friable, finely acted play at the McCarter Theater here sometimes manages to distrupt old tropes, mostly because it feels like two shows carpentered together, with rough joints. It begins as a romantic tragedy, unfolds as a melancholy country-house comedy, then skitters back to tragedy again. I couldn’t always tell where the play was going, which was invigorating. But I wasn’t confident that Bonds, a nimble writer, and Tyne Rafaeli, her skilled director, knew either. It’s about old secrets, new motherhood, art-making, sex-having, nature, nurture and mental illness. Let’s put it this way: At one point, I had four of the five characters on suicide watch.
Haunted by Chekhov’s “The Seagull” (consciously or otherwise), “Goodnight Nobody,” gathers a group of mostly artists at a lakeside retreat. Reggie (Nate Miller), a standup comedian in his 30s with substance abuse issues, has invited two old friends to an upstate farmhouse. Nandish (Saamer Usmani), who goes by Nan, is a painter with a troubled interior life and an apparent devotion to arm day at the gym. K (Ariel Woodiwiss) is a new mother with postpartum depression. (The script identifies her as a teacher, but the play never mentions her work, which seems odd or maybe telling.) They are joined by Mara (Dana Delany), Reggie’s art-star sculptor mother, and Bo (Ken Marks), her painter boyfriend. Some people might pack Pictionary or fishing tackle for the weekend. Bo brings an ax.
Bonds has a talent for naturalism, and the chatter among the three friends crackles with lived experience and imaginative sympathy. As the mother of a preschooler, Bonds is beautifully specific about the isolation and occasional despair of young motherhood. (K describes herself as “a fragmented zombie milk-person with a baby who I love like an animal, but who makes me so, so tired, like a thick, leaden, gray tired I have never felt.”) But the revelation of acute mental illness feels stagy. And the conversations around visual art sound as empty as those conversations usually do. “It impacted my whole being,” Nan says of Mara’s work.