Rich interior lives in Lynn Nottage’s ‘Intimate Apparel,’ at McCarter Theatre Center

T CHARLES ERICKSON

From left, Galen Kane, Jessica Frances Dukes, Quincy Tyler Bernstine and Kate MacCluggage co-star in “Intimate Apparel,” which is at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton through June 4.

The McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton received a nice little publicity boost last month when it was announced that Lynn Nottage, whose “Intimate Apparel” is currently being produced there, had become the first female playwright to win two Pulitzer Prizes. “Intimate Apparel,” first produced in 2003, is not one of the winners, but still, that’s pretty rarefied air for any playwright to breathe, and “Intimate Apparel,” which seems to be universally adored by critics (at least judging by the online reviews I have been able to find), is very possibly her best known and most frequently performed work.

The McCarter production is flawlessly executed. And yet I found the play itself the kind of work that’s easier to respect than to love. Set in lower Manhattan in 1905, it has some finely sketched characters, and touches on issues having to do with women’s rights, race, religion, class and homosexuality. Yet I found its central relationship uncompelling.

Esther (played by Quincy Tyler Bernstine) is an unmarried 35-year-old African-American seamstress who dreams of owning her own beauty parlor. George (Galen Kane) is a Barbadian man working on the Panama Canal who takes a long-distance interest in her, sight unseen, and courts her by writing letters. Esther and George do eventually meet, and marry, and complications inevitably ensue. But their relationship always felt, to me, like a dream or a nightmare, never like something real.

Esther’s specialty, as a seamstress, is intimate apparel, and two of her clients are Mrs. Van Buren (Kate MacCluggage), a white woman who is enduring an unsatisfying marriage to a rich man, and Mayme (Jessica Frances Dukes), an African-American prostitute who is sufficiently skilled as a musician to be a concert pianist, but knows it will never happen. Esther is illiterate, so Mrs. Van Buren and Mayme help her with her letters to George, whose own writing style is improbably flowery (“I think of you running silk thread between your fingers and find a bit of holy relief.”).

Esther’s job also brings her into contact with Mr. Marks (Tasso Feldman), an orthodox Jewish fabric merchant who, in an interesting parallel, is engaged to someone he’s never seen: a woman from his original home country, Romania, whom he’s planning to wed in an arranged marriage. The relationship between Esther and Mr. Marks is actually the most intriguing one in the play: There’s a strong sexual tension between them, and a real connection, having to do with their shared love of fine fabrics. They interact with solemn formality and yet, at times, their real feelings for each other sneak through.

Every encounter between them seems very … intimate. But then so do the conversations between Esther and Mayme, and Esther and Mrs. Van Buren, and even Esther and Mrs. Dickson (Brenda Pressley), the widow who owns the boarding house Esther lives in, and is often something of a concerned, gently disapproving mother figure.

According to an essay in the play’s program, “Playwright Lynn Nottage has spoken and written at length about her self-proclaimed artistic mission: to tell the stories of forgotten people, those whose lives did not make it into the records through which we, as Americans, chronicle the history of our country.”

Nottage undeniably succeeds in imagining a rich interior life for the “forgotten” people in this play — except, notably George, who actually seems to grow more shallow as the play goes on, and we learn more about him. I think that’s a problem: At the very least, it’s one of the things that keeps me from considering “Intimate Apparel” a masterpiece.

“Intimate Apparel” is at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton through June 4; visit mccarter.org.

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