David Cale’s new play “Sandra” is full of classic suspense tropes, as if he had challenged himself to fit as much of the genre’s core elements into one 90-minute show – I waited for someone to relay information from the computer. To a USB key as the seconds pass.
While this story of a woman searching for a missing friend is built using simple potboiler blocks, “Sandra” opening at the Vineyard Theater on Sunday is far from generic.
Cale is acting within the parameters of the monologue, as he has for over 35 years – a genre that requires writers and actors, and not one that is often associated with white knuckle tension. She also weaves themes that have long permeated her work, including the way people often reinvent themselves to cope with trauma and the need to transform in the face of challenges.
The playwright usually does his own shows, but here he lends his voice to another actor, as he did with Billy Crudup’s 2017 hit “Harry Clarke,” which introduced Cale to a wider audience.
Marjan Neshat (“English”, “I Wish You Were Here”) portrays all the characters, most notably the narrator Sandra Jones, a woman in her 40s who owns a cafe in Brooklyn and is vaguely content with her life. One day, a close friend, a musician named Ethan, sets off for Puerto Vallarta, Mexico; never returns. Ethan’s compositions live with Sandra (beautiful piano sheet music by Matthew Dean Marsh, Cale’s collaborator on the 2019 play with the music “We’re Only Alive for a Amount of a Amount of Time”), who listens to them often. But physically, it’s like he’s disappeared from the face of the earth.
Our hero decides to look for him by jumping on the first of several flights he will undertake throughout the show. Arriving in Mexico, Sandra, separated from her husband and perhaps unaware of how emotionally and physically deprived she is, falls in love with the younger, burly Luca. She says she’s a student and shines with an attractive, disinterested masculinity with just the right amount of seductive mystery about her past. Luca is the male counterpart to the sultry sirens that have long lured male protagonists of film noir, and sometimes it feels like Cale is having so much fun translating the codes of a 1990s erotic thriller.
Leigh Silverman’s restrained staging can dampen the impact of the show’s compelling set pieces, such as Sandra secretly searching for a purse while its owner is in the shower, or surreptitiously recording an incriminating conversation on her phone. Thom Weaver’s lighting is a wonderful technical presence, with a romantic pessimism in the early stages of Sandra and Luca’s relationship, then suggesting the ominous chiaroscuro of film noir as the plot thickens.
Neshat is mostly rooted in one spot, sometimes standing, sometimes sitting, and the show feels disinterested in the body as a storytelling tool. The actress is literally at the center of it all, and has been given the thorny gift of a role that requires a shifting talent to portray various characters, including the manager of Sandra’s cafe, an Australian surfer dude, and an older gentleman. from a Tennessee Williams play. He has trouble distinguishing them, and even Luca hardly notices him slipping in and out of Neshat’s accented “potpourri of a voice.”
But she shines as Sandra, a woman who is confident enough in her identity and self-confident enough to call her cage her own name, but who feels dragged and often described in relation to others. No matter how exaggerated the plot, Neshat instills in Sandra the perfectly adjusted balance of anxious hope and effortless warmth – her smile alone is a masterpiece of complexity, followed by melancholy, cheerful, triumphant and bittersweet. For example, we immediately understand why Sandra got involved with Luca (the opposite is not so convincing).
Earlier, Sandra told us that when Ethan was about to leave for Puerto Vallarta, she told him “they were that simple, if I disappeared you’d probably be out of your life too.” Yet Sandra is building herself out of Ethan’s absence, and ultimately from her own absence.
At the Vineyard Theater in Manhattan until December 11; vineyardtheatre.org. Duration: 1 hour 20 minutes.